Monday, November 30, 2009

Animate Your Words

I’m still not up to speed on book trailers—maybe because I don’t quite understand their purpose, or maybe simply because I’m too lazy to investigate. But here’s a good place to start: in anticipation of a forthcoming memoir, poet Sandra Beasley started thinking about book trailers, which led her to decide to learn how to animate some of her poems. The process as she describes it feels doable, and the results (now on YouTube) are admirable.

As Sandra notes, “Why do this? These videos will never supplant the poems themselves. I don't expect to monetize them. Enjambment tends to get lost, unfortunately, which means in some ways you have to compromise the poem to make this work.

“But anything that gets your poems to a ‘slightly’ different audience than before intrigues me. It's the same reason we put poems on buses and subway cars--and in that spirit, try to choose poems that translate to a public and attention-span-challenged space.”

Start here with Part 1 of Sandra’s posts (links to subsequent posts are at the end of Part 1; Part 2 is where you can read the nitty-gritty about how to put together your own video).

And be sure to check out Sandra’s poem “Vocation” here:

Contest for Long Short Stories

A contest for those who—like me—can’t keep it short:

THE LONG STORY CONTEST, International (formerly The Long Fiction Contest, International), now in its 17th year, has become the premier competition for writers of stories that don't fit the conventional limits imposed by the economics of small press publishing. Named for A. E. Coppard, one of the leading British writers of the 1920's, whose first story was rejected only because it was too long--12,000 words--the contest attracts writers from all over the world. In order to acknowledge and encourage entries from outside the United States, the word International has been added to the title. All submissions must be in English and entry fee in U.S. dollars.

Manuscript Length: 8,000-14,000 words (30-50 pages double spaced).
Manuscript Genre: Single story (may have multi- parts or be a self-contained novel segment)Deadline: December 15, 2009 postmark. Winner announced by late Spring 2010.

Award: 2010 A. E. Coppard Prize for Fiction. Winner--$1000. and 25 copies, plus 10 press kits to news sources of choice. All entrants receive a copy of the prize chapbook.

Entry Fee: $15. US funds. Additional MSS in same envelope $10. US each. Check made out to WECSP. Entry fee is not refundable.

Format: Cover Page with Title, Name, Address, Phone, E-mail. Second Title Page, no name. No name on MS. Easy to read type or print, double spaced. Do not bind MS.

Judging: Blind judging. All stories coded before judging. Judge: Tom Smith, The Christmas Shopper

SASE for announcement only. Use #10 envelope. No manuscripts can be returned. They will be recycled.

Simultaneous Submissions OK. Multiple submissions are not a problem. Please let us know if story accepted elsewhere. Unpublished (Previous publication of small parts of ms. OK with acknowledgments). Published on the Internet is Published and cannot be considered.

NO Restrictions on style, method, or subject matter. We respect the full range of literary writing.

Mail to:
Long Story Contest, International
White Eagle Coffee Store Press
P.O. Box 383
Fox River Grove IL 60021
Use USPS First Class Mail. More information:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving to all! Here’s what we’ll be cooking/eating tomorrow, if all goes as planned~~

Spiced Nuts
Crudités & Green Goddess Spinach Dip
Pimento Cheese
The Classic Martini
The Robert Burns*

Breast of Turkey & Roulade**
Cornbread Stuffing
Classic Cranberry Sauce
Mashed Potatoes & Gravy
Gratineed Mustard Creamed Onions
Maple-Pecan Sweet Potatoes***
Brussels Sprouts Cockaigne****

Pumpkin Pie
Coffee & Tea

*Yes, how literary. Steve is in charge of cocktail and wine selection. Here’s some background, and a recipe, though our recipe calls for Drambuie instead of absinthe.

**Prepped by the fabulous Butcher’s Block shop in Alexandria, NOT by me! Gravy, too, in a hopeful attempt to create a stress-free kitchen for a change, though the turkey directions are a little on the vague side, stressing me out already (i.e. “cook for 1.5 to 3 hours”).

***With marshmallows this year, at Steve’s request. Last time we did the marshmallows, they caught on fire…oops!

****From The Joy of Cooking; “cockaigne” is the name they give to their most special recipes…I think I’m remembering it was the name of their family house or something? This is one of the few recipes that make brussel sprouts taste good.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

More on Hollywood in the Thirties

Poet John Guzlowski emailed these reading suggestions as follow-up to my post about Fitzgerald in Hollywood:

“Several years ago there was a great book on Writers and Hollywood by Tom Dardis: Some Time in the Sun: The Hollywood Years of F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Nathanael West, Aldous Huxley and James Agee.

“Dardis is wonderful, smart and interesting. He also wrote a great book on drinking and American writers in the 20th cent called The Thirsty Muse. If you haven't read it, do yourself a favor.

“By the way have you read, Fitzgerald's stories about being a writer?* They are collected in his Pat Hobby Stories. They are very good.

“I was crazy about Fitzgerald for a long time and read much about him. Budd Schulberg (who wrote "On the Water Front") worked with Fitzgerald and wrote a very good novel about going on an assignment with him to write a script about a winter carnival at Dartmouth! It's called The Disenchanted. A sad, sad novel.”

*Yes, I love The Pat Hobby Stories, which are on my “favorite books bookshelf.” From the back of my old Scribner’s paperback: “…Fitzgerald was able to satirize not only the vulgar, hallucinatory climate of Hollywood in the late thirties but also his own bitter captivity inside it.” I just reread the first story, where down-on-his-luck Pat thinks he has a way out, only to discover he's more down on his luck and expendable than he had imagined.

From the end of "Pat Hobby's Christmas Wish," the big boss says,

"Like someone should have cracked down on you, Pat. But you were an amusing guy in those days, and besides we were all too busy."

Pat sniffed suddenly.

"I've been cracked down on," he said. "Plenty."

"But too late," said Gooddorf...

Lee Gutkind to Lead Master Workshop at Writer's Center

This is a great opportunity to learn from a true master:

The Writer's Center is pleased to announce that one of the leading figures of creative nonfiction, Lee Gutkind, will lead a master workshop this winter at The Writer's Center.

7 - 9:30 p.m. Monday, Feb 8, Tuesday, Feb. 9, Thursday, Feb. 11, and Friday, Feb. 12
Fee: $300 for members; $350 for nonmembers

Whether you are writing memoir or writing about science, business, or history, the writer, to be successful, must find a way to communicate interesting and vital information along with his or her ideas and feelings--through scene or narrative.

Those are the first two challenges in creative nonfiction: Style or story blended with substance or fact. And then there's focus/theme--the awesome final challenge: What does all of this information plus narrative mean to the reader, to the writer, and to the world? What do we want our readers to think or do after they read our essay or our book?

These are the three challenges facing the nonfiction writer today--often the vital prerequisites of publication and communication.

In this workshop, Lee Gutkind, founder and editor of the landmark magazine Creative Nonfiction, will lead you through the creative nonfiction writing process from beginning to end. He will demonstrate the writer's pitfalls and the ways in which the writer might fulfill the creative nonfiction triple challenge.

In the first class, Gutkind will discuss and demonstrate the classic structure of creative nonfiction--how style and substance come together. In the second class, Gutkind will be joined by his colleague, Dan Sarewitz, a columnist for the journal Nature, and co-director of Arizona State University's Consortium for Science Policy & Outcomes. Sarewitz and Gutkind will focus on perhaps the most difficult of the three challenges: finding meaning in your work. For the third and fourth sessions students will be asked to write a short narrative that combines style, substance, and meaning--and share their work with the class.

This is a master workshop. To apply, you must submit 5 hard copy pages of a creative nonfiction piece (it can be an excerpt from a longer work). Please do not register for this workshop before you are admitted. Submission deadline for this workshop is January 4. Check the website for details.

To learn more about Lee Gutkind, please visit him at

Monday, November 23, 2009

Stephen Elliott: How to Write about Your Family

DC writer Paula Whyman organized an amazing event on Friday, hosting Stephen Elliott at a packed reading at Teaism. Stephen, who is on a wild, self-organized, nationwide tour of reading in people’s houses and at venues beyond the typical bookstore, read from his new book, The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder. He told us he was reading different parts of the book at each event (a nice trick, considering he will have been on the road for more than three months when the tour winds up). He’ll be touring until December 18, and if you have the chance to see him read, I call this a "must see."

If you’ve ever read his work, you know that it is incredibly intense and dark and honest: reading his autobiographical novel Happy Baby was a memorably wrenching experience (one of the most powerful books I've read, though I recommend it's that brutal). So I had to ask his advice on something that often comes up in my classes (okay, and in my own life, too), worrying about the reaction of family/friends when they read certain stories.

He gave a great answer, which I’ll paraphrase, since I was too mesmerized to think of taking notes:

First, don’t even worry about anyone’s reactions until the piece is going to be published. This is simply the wisest comment on the whole subject—obviously, the story can change in progress or not get written or be written but live only in a file drawer. He also noted that you shouldn’t imagine that the person you don’t want to read the piece won’t find it…they always, always do.

Disguise characters so that it’s not obvious who you’re writing about.

Then, he suggested that you let the pertinent person/people read it before the work is being published, rather than after publication. Inevitably, people will react in one way or another, but he said that people will not want to be the one who “stops” a book/story from being published. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but sure: who will come out and demand that you rip up that contract?

Writers need to own the story and own their actions. As he said, “I’m a writer, and this is what I do.” We write stories, and sometimes they’re not pretty and sometimes they involve people we know.

Finally, he noted that if you’re going to go into this sort of territory, you need to go in all the way. You can’t create art by going only halfway. That is, if you’re going to write the story about your father, write the truth of that whole story: don’t hold back.

Great, great advice…I plan to steal this all next time the subject comes up in one of my classes.

And here’s my fun fact about Stephen Elliott: this artsy writer exploring with bare honesty the dark, wrenching, difficult corners of his life, has a fantasy football team. !!! My mouth literally dropped open when I heard this, and I was even more charmed and mesmerized than I had been before (even though his quarterback is the annoying Tony Romo, from DC’s archrival Dallas Cowboys).

You can read more about the event and see some photos at Paula Whyman’s blog.

Stephen Elliott's essay "Why I Write."

C.M. Mayo's "Spellbinding, Heartbreaking Tale"

Congratulations to C.M. Mayo, friend and guest blogger, whose new novel The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire was named to Library Journal’s list of “best books of 2009.” Catherine was in my writing group for many years, so I know how hard she worked on this lovely book and how much she deserves this honor!

From Library Journal:

“Once upon a time, there was a little half-American boy who briefly became heir to the Mexican throne—until his distraught parents sued the doomed Emperor Maximilian for his return. As in the best historical fiction, Mayo's sparkling first novel transforms a forgotten historical footnote into a spellbinding, heartbreaking tale filled with drama and fascinating characters.”

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Guest in Progress: Katharine Davis

It’s one of the trickiest questions writers have to face: When is it done? (This is also a tricky question with regard to Thanksgiving turkeys, but I digress…) Here, my dear friend and former writing group member Katharine (Kitty) Davis wrestles with the ramifications of saying "the end."

(Also check out her previous posts for this blog, “Betwixt and Between,” about filling time between projects; and this New Yorker-style “Letter from Maine.” And here’s her yummy recipe for fish chowder, inspired by her second novel, East Hope…perfect for these dark winter evenings.)

Letting Go of Your Novel
Katharine Davis

Writing a novel is a long journey. From the simple physical endurance of turning out all those pages to the emotional ups and downs of the creative act—it’s an enormous endeavor, consuming one’s life for years at a time.

Writers often talk about the difficulty of getting started. How do you find the voice, where to begin, which point of view, the time frame, the setting? There are thousands of questions to consider, big and small.

Then, there is the problem of sticking to it, finding the time to write, getting blocked. Oh, the agony of finally understanding a character in the thirteenth chapter and having to re-write the previous 200 pages. How painful it is to discover you’ve gone off on a tangent, another 60 pages. You love every word, but you have to take them all out.

Eventually, you do the tedious revisions. Sentence by sentence, word by word, the work of getting the prose just right. Some days it’s nothing but a pleasure to revise, working on the rhythm, having the perfect metaphor seem to land in your lap. You might experience the thrill of coming up with that one word that changes everything. But, the countless hours spent on dialogue that clunks along like the rattle in your car that the mechanic can’t fix, or the flashback that’s brought your narrative drive to a halt--these trials are part of the process too.

Yet to me, one of the hardest parts of writing a novel is letting it go. You type ‘the end’ in all caps. You send it out. You want to celebrate, drink champagne, eat an enormous chocolate cupcake and tell all your friends, “I did it. I’m done. It’s the best ever. Yay!” And then, wham. What have I written? I didn’t get deeply enough into that character’s head. Did I tell enough about the mother? Oh God. That part’s too sappy. I should have made it better. These thoughts come at 3 AM, thanks to the champagne, the cupcake, or both. At that moment, the initial thrill of finding the story, and the enthusiasm of bringing it to the page is like some prehistoric event.

The next day, I feel somewhat better. There’s that scene where . . . and, remember when . . . , and the ending that can still make me cry. I find a paragraph I truly love. When did I write that? The next few weeks bring a combination of highs and lows.

Letting go of a novel is like sending children off to college. They’ve spent the last few years of high school driving you crazy, but also bringing you joy and delight. You experience the relief of getting them out from under your roof, to deep sadness. You miss them. You want your child to have his own life, to succeed. But it’s no longer up to you. Your baby if gone. Still, you’ve created something with love and hard work. Hopefully, the sense of pride and satisfaction will be long lasting.

This morning I pressed “send” and heard that final electronic click. I sent my novel, A SLENDER THREAD to my editor. The champagne is in the fridge. I plan to go to Magnolia Bakery this afternoon. Best cupcakes in New York.

About: Katharine Davis began writing fiction in 1999. Capturing Paris (St. Martin’s Press, 2006) was her first novel. Recommended in Real Simple Spring Travel 2007, the novel was also included in the New York Times' suggestions for fiction set in Paris. Her second novel, East Hope, was published by New American Library in 2009. She is an Associate Editor at The Potomac Review. She can be reached at (Be sure to check out her fabulous Maine and Paris travel tips!)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fitzgerald in Hollywood

It wasn’t until I opened my November 16, 2009, issue of The New Yorker on the plane to Austin that I saw this article about F. Scott Fitzgerald and his struggles in Hollywood. It was an excellent piece—written by Arthur Krystal, who’s working on a book on the topic—and it’s well worth searching out a print copy of the magazine. (The web site offers only an abstract.)

Krystal had access to Fitzgerald’s papers from a forgotten corner of the M-G-M archives, and it seems that our friend Scott really, really, REALLY wanted to come up with a great movie. And so why didn’t he succeed? Not hard to figure out, acutally, based on Krystal's research.

Krystal writes that while examining the papers,

“…I discovered just how hard he had worked at his craft. Fitzgerald approached each assignment with an intensity that must have puzzled his superiors. Given a script to revise, he would break it down, backstory it, advise the producers of its potential, and then start to add layers. ‘A Yank at Oxford’ couldn’t be just an innocent romance’ it had to prove the connection between language and mores. ‘Madame Curie’ couldn’t be just the story of a woman overcoming the odds; it had to reveal the intricacies of a marriage between equals. Naturally, he became emotionally invested in the work, making it difficult to cede control, and, like the British colonel in ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai,’ he forgot that what he was building didn’t belong to him, and, consequently, felt dismayed at its destruction.”

Here’s a brief bit from one of Fitztgerald's screenplays, “Cosmopolitan,” based on his short story “Babylon Revisited”:

Krystal notes: “Now follows a much longer, prosy summation of Marion Petrie’s character and attitudes, all of which could be expressed in a few lines of dialogue instead of lengthy paragraphs:

“[Fitzgerald wrote:] His wife Marion…is an extremely pretty American woman of thirty-two who must have hoped for a better match. She is now in a state of great emotion—barely controlled. She is agitated almost to the breaking point by the news of her sister’s suicide, which reached her last night in Paris. Always before this she has felt a certain secret jealously of her sister, who has great wealth and luxury.”

Sounds like a pureborn novelist to me.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Austin Wrap-Up

We spent the weekend in Austin, Texas, and despite being tied down by business functions, were able to get in some good eating (shock):

--We had a wonderful lunch at Manuel’s, upscale Mexican food, with very refreshing (and potent) margaritas…nice tequila list. I had the chile relleno en nogada, a chile stuffed with pork, almonds and raisins with a walnut-brandy sauce, and Steve had the mole enchilada. We were totally stuffed after that, but bravely headed to the business event that night, dinner at:

--Threadgill’s, the music venue where Janis Joplin got her start (Austin bills itself as the live music capital of the world). We had chicken fried chicken breast (which is different than fried chicken!), and two sides: garlic cheese grits, and I went for the “light” fried okra, while Steve headed for “San Antonio squash.” I don’t know the exact recipe, but I’m pretty sure it involves a few slices of summer squash, corn, canned chiles, and lots of Velveeta. Who couldn’t like vegetables with all that camouflage? My peach cobbler was good, but Steve’s pecan pie was AMAZING.

--Fonda San Miguel had been recommended by us with such enthusiasm (thanks, LLD!) that we had to hop in a cab and try a late Sunday brunch. I’m not much of a brunch person, due to the tendency to eat like a pig with all that food spread out, but this was our only chance to get here, and it was nice to try so many wonderful Mexican dishes, including a deep-dark mole, and a spicy chicken with crema sauce. It was fun to try cactus salad, and there was a corn dish, sort of like a spoon bread that was so sweet and yummy that I added a second helping of it to my dessert plate. Steve was all over the tres leches cake. We waddled out of there and collapsed for a good long while.

--Later that night, we had the chance to sit in the beautiful western bar of the historic Driskill Hotel, built in 1886 by a cattle baron. I love historic hotels, and this is one of the most stunning ones I’ve ever been in. (You can find some great photos here.)

--We stumbled onto FRANK after we had already eaten lunch. But FRANK, with its hipster vibe and promise of housemade sausages and hot dogs lured us in, and we were not disappointed. In fact, we were in awe! We only had half an hour or so before having to leave for the airport, so we promised ourselves that we would share a quick dog and get out. Oh, haha. Our second “light” lunch began with a Manhattan made with bacon-infused Maker’s Mark, a drink called “redheaded stranger” that was a bloody Mary made with bacon-infused vodka garnished with a pepperocini, a jalapeno stuffed olive, a chunk of cheddar, and a strip of bacon (!!), and a half black pepper, half celery salt crusted rim (in a nod to common sense, I got the small version). Steve had the jalapeno cheese dog, which featured a homemade dog with flecks of jalapeno inside the meat (as well as scattered liberally on top) and I had one of the day’s specials: chicken fried hot dog. I defy anyone to pass this up; even one of the vegetarian servers claimed that this dish is what makes him think about going back to meat. It was AWESOME! An incredible, clean and natural-tasting hot dog deep fried in a very light batter, covered with cream gravy. Mmmmm…. It was beyond my expectations. (Oh, and I’m not crazy—I kept things light by not eating the bun.) We bought our bacon-chocolate chip cookies to go. If you’re anywhere remotely close to Texas, it’s so worth your while to make a beeline to this heavenly place.

--There was more than food, and some of the non-food highlights included the “spouse trolley tour”(hi, Jenny!) that showed me parts of Austin beyond the downtown area, including some mansions from old-time Austin, a too-quick visit to the Lyndon Johnson presidential library (he had huge, goofy ears as a baby!), and a good view of the GIGANTIC Jumbotron at the UT football stadium. And Steve and I found a fun, artsy music store called Wild About Music where we bought some Austin CDs. And if either Western Ghost House or The Sideshow Tragedy ever collect a Grammy…well, we saw them play live in Austin at The Ghost Room!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Someone Else's Titling Woes

This interview with Michelle Huneven, author of a new novel called Blame, is interesting (and the book sounds great!), but I was particularly intrigued by this (sadly familiar) tale of titling woes:

OLIVAS: Choosing a title for a novel can be both exhilarating and exasperating. The one word title of your novel is unflinching, almost accusatory. How did you decide upon it? Can you share with us some titles that didn’t make it?

HUNEVEN: This was the hardest title to find!

I started writing the book thinking that one of the key characters would have a part time job giving scrapbooking workshops and selling scrapbooking supplies—such people are sometimes called “memory consultants.” So the original title was, The Memory Consultant. But then the character never became a scrapbooker, and I didn’t have a title.

When I finished the draft I sent to my agent, I had the most spineless title—After All, I think. I don’t really remember. I knew it was terrible, but wanted something on the title page. My agent, who has since retired, suggested Patsy’s Fault, which had resonance, but I found a little too jaunty for the book. A close friend, also a novelist, suggested Blame, and that’s how the book went out to publishers. After she bought the book, my editor Sarah Crichton wanted a title that was a little less thematically pointed. We looked long and hard for something else. I had all my friends helping, or trying to. For All She Knew was one contender, but I could never remember it, and if I couldn’t remember the title of my own book, how would other people recall it long enough to get to the bookstore? Another contender was Patsy MacLemoore, but to me it was a little too Olive Kitteridge-ish—same syllabic count. Blame was memorable. It may not be the very best title for this book, but after months of searching (and I paged through the Bible, most of Shakespeare, not to mention Yeats, Stevens, Bishop, and Rumi...) and boring my friends to death, I came up empty handed. By then, my editor had decided that Blame was the best and only title for the book.

Read on here.

Split This Rock Poetry Contest

I just got the info on this year's Split This Rock poetry contest:

$1,000 awarded for poems of provocation & witness
Chris Abani, Judge

Benefits Split This Rock Poetry Festival - Washington, DC, March 10-13, 2010

Prizes: First place $500; 2nd and 3rd place, $250 each. Winners will receive free festival registration, and the 1st-place winner will be invited to read the winning poem at Split This Rock Poetry Festival, 2010. Winning poems will be published on

Deadline: January 4, 2010 (postmark)

Reading Fee: $25, which supports Split This Rock Poetry Festival

Details: Submissions should be in the spirit of Split This Rock: socially engaged poems, poems that reach beyond the self to connect with the larger community or world; poems of provocation and witness. This theme can be interpreted broadly and may include but is not limited to work addressing politics, economics, government, war, leadership; issues of identity (gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, disability, body image, immigration, heritage, etc.); community, civic engagement, education, activism; and poems about history, Americana, cultural icons.

Split This Rock subscribes to the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses Contest Code of Ethics.

Submission Guidelines: Send up to 3 unpublished poems, no more than 6 pages total, in any style, in the spirit of Split This Rock (see above).

Postmark deadline: January 4, 2010

Include one cover page containing your name, address, phone number, email, and the titles of your poems. This is the only part of the submission that should contain your name.

Enclose a check or money order for $25 (made out to "Split This Rock") to:

Split This Rock Poetry Contest
1112 16th Street NW, Suite 600
Washington, DC 20036

Simultaneous submissions OK, but please notify us immediately if the poem is accepted elsewhere. For more information,

2010 Poetry Contest Judge

Chris Abani will be featured at Split This Rock Poetry Festival 2010. His poetry collections are Hands Washing Water (Copper Canyon, 2006), Dog Woman (Red Hen, 2004), Daphne's Lot (Red Hen, 2003), and Kalakuta Republic (Saqi, 2001). His prose includes Song For Night (Akashic, 2007), The Virgin of Flames (Penguin, 2007), and Becoming Abigail (Akashic, 2006). He is a professor at the University of California-Riverside and the recipient of many awards, including the PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a PEN Beyond the Margins Award, and a Guggenheim Award.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Guest in Progress: Susan Tekulve

I have been begging Susan Tekulve for years to write something for this blog, and I’m thrilled to report that my nagging has finally paid off. Susan is a wonderful writer (see below for information about her exciting new collection of stories, Savage Pilgrims), a dedicated and superb teacher (at Converse College and in the Converse College Low-Residency MFA program), and a dear friend. You may recall the fried pimento cheese sandwich in Spartanburg…she was right there with me! And the day of beauty at the Estee Lauder counter…totally her idea!

I would need 1000 dictionaries to find enough nice words to say about her and about her work, so I'll just have to randomly pick one: fabulous! I am truly excited to be able to share with you one of her favorite writing exercises, and I’m looking forward to trying it myself:

At Home In the World: Using Travel to Produce Autobiographical Writing
By Susan Tekulve

In her autobiography, One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty states, “Writers and travelers are mesmerized alike by knowing of their destinations.” She argues that like travelers, writers are preoccupied with discovering sequence in experience, of stumbling upon cause and effect in the happenings of a writer’s own life as well as in the lives of others. The following writing exercise relies on the principle that most people carry their earliest, most sacred memories of home with them into adulthood. These memories are often hidden in the past, but the experience of travel to a new place sometimes will trigger a familiar emotion and unlock these early, forgotten experiences. The travel experience also allows you to gain the distance and perspective on your early memories of home that is needed to create structured memoirs and literary travel essays. I use this writing exercise in my creative nonfiction travel/study courses, but I swear by using this approach while I am traveling and writing about my travels both in the States and abroad.

1) Preparation: Before beginning this exercise, read memoirist Patricia Hampl’s essay, “Umbrian Spring.” In this essay, Hampl combines her memories of the Catholic convent school she attended as a girl with her travels to the convents and monasteries “offering hospitality” in the little hill towns of Umbria. You can see how Hampl’s journey through the Italian monasteries allows her to gain perspective on her childhood memory of the convent school and to contemplate the meaning of hospitality, one of the oldest missions of monastic life.

2) Draw a map of your earliest remembered neighborhood and include as much detail as you can. Who lived there? What were the secret places? Where did your friends live? Where were the off-limit places? Once you’ve made your map, it’s time to write. Tell a story from one of the places you have drawn on your map. Do not edit yourself yet. Keep writing until you’ve finished the story.

3) Go for a walk around the foreign city that you are visiting. Choose a building, fountain, door, sculpture or any other feature that you have seen in your wandering that speaks to you. Give it a name that has meaning for you. Draw or sketch your own map, (primitive, rudimentary or detailed), of the route that has led you to this spot. If on that route there are other significant spots, mark them too and give them a name. Retrace your steps to your destination. Sit down, study the map of the place you have named and free write for ten minutes, focusing on sensations, objects, in random order, of your tour. What is it about this place speaks to you or seems familiar? How did it make you feel? Why did it make you feel this way?

4) Compare the map from your journey with the map from your earliest memory. What do these two maps have in common? How has the journey experience helped you to understand your early, childhood memory? What questions, if any, has the travel experience answered for you. Using Hampl’s essay as a model, write a personal experience essay in which you connect the story from your childhood with the story from your journey.

Additional notes on using this exercise in a class:

When I use this exercise with students, I am usually teaching abroad in a workshop situation or in a travel study program, though I think this exercise can be adapted easily to a city in the States or to your own personal travels. First, I have the students read the Hampl essay before coming to our class session so that we can discuss its meaning and structure together. Then, I have them draw the childhood map and free write about one of their childhood experiences while we are all together in class. After the students have completed their maps and "memory" free writing, I send them off to explore the town or city that we are in, giving the students a set time frame, (about one hour), to find their "travel destination" and draw their second maps. This gives the students enough time to find a place and record their impressions; however, it also ensures that they don't wander off too far or get lost. Finally, because students need time to ponder, I suggest that they write the actual draft of their essay when they are back in their living quarters, possibly revisiting their chosen "travel site" on their own.

About: Susan Tekulve is the author of two story collections, My Mother’s War Stories (Winnow Press) and Savage Pilgrims (Serving House Books; available for purchase here: Her chapbook, Wash Day, is forthcoming on the Webdelsol "World Voices Series." Her nonfiction, stories and poems have appeared in Shenandoah, The Georgia Review, New Letters, Best New Writing 2007, The Indiana Review, Denver Quarterly, Puerto del Sol, Prairie Schooner, Beloit Fiction Journal, Crab Orchard Review, The Literary Review, Webdelsol, Black Warrior Review and The Kansas City Star. She has been awarded scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and the Sewanee Writers Conference. An associate professor of English at Converse College in South Carolina, she is completing a novel.

You can read more of her work here:

~“Second Shift” (essay) from Writers on the Job,

~“A Dance of Words: A Conversation with Beth Kephart” (writer interview),

~“The Way of Stories: An Interview With Jean Thompson (writer interview), Webdelsol,

~“Real cities With Imaginary Prose About Them; An Inerview with Thomas E. Kennedy” (writer interview), from The Literary Review,

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Best American Short Stories 2009

Lately, I’ve been dipping in and out of the new edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Alice Sebold, and I’ve found some excellent stories by some unfamiliar writers. (In fact, that’s the reason I faithfully buy this book year after year, looking for writers—and journals—I haven’t read much or ever.)

I didn’t discover any new journals, but I did find some great new (to me) writers and stories. Here are some of my favorites:

“Into the Gorge” by Ron Rash, set in the mountainous South, is a tight and tragic story about the loss of land and a way of life, all the more chilling because we know the inevitable outcome.

First paragraph:
“His great-aunt had been born on this land, lived on it eight decades and knew it as well as she knew her husband and children. That was what she’d always claimed, and could tell you to the week when the first dogwood blossom would brighten the ridge, the first blackberry darken and swell enough to harvest. Then her mind had wandered into a place she could not follow, taking with it all the people she knew, their names and connections, whether they still lived or whether they’d died. But her body lingered, shed of an inner being, empty as a cicada husk.”

The author notes that the story “came to me first as an image. A man was running from something. He was too old to be running, yet he was running nevertheless.”

“Rubiaux Rising” by Steve de Jarnatt, is set during Hurricane Katrina, about a war veteran whose aunt has locked him up in the attic as a homestyle method of drug withdrawal. The aunt has gone to town before the storm saying she’d be back…but hasn’t returned.

From the beginning:
“This early morning, as Rubiaux rouses, it is long-dead quiet. Like wads of chawed paper stuck flush back up against eardrums. Just blood rushing nothing in his head. Then blood rushing nothing in his head. Then blood simmers down, and he can hear gulls squawking on the wind somewhere. He sees gray light squeezing through rippage in the curling tarpaper lining the inside of this well-built roof. Wood is bare, creosoted here and there, but no paint. He has tried to steal an hour of sleep after an unholy night of ceaseless howl and shredding from the fiercest storm this parish has ever seen. How the roof stayed on was miracle indeed, testament to his late Uncle Zachary’s carpentry skill. The extra nail he’d always pound, just to be sure. But that craftsmanship has also imprisoned poor Rubiaux here in dire predicament. All night, as the din of the tempest crescendoed again and again, he thought it surely must be the Rapture. But here he is at dawn—left behind—not risen to heaven.”

This is the author’s first piece of fiction he ever sent out, and his first published story. (!!!) He notes, “The tale was spawned from an exercise given to me: write about a man in a room with a plant.” [Note: This is why writing teachers like to assign exercises!]

“Sagittarius” by Greg Hrbek, is about an unusual baby born to a couple…think centaur. "Fix" the baby, or not?

From the beginning:
“…While they were arguing (again) about the surgery, the baby vaulted over the rail of the playpen, as if it were a hurdle to be cleared. They heard his hooves scrabbling on the rubber mat, but were too late to see him jump: tucking his forelegs up, hind legs flexing and thrusting, body tracing a parabola through the air; then the earthward reach of the forelegs, the tucking up of the rear hooves, the landing. They shouted his name in unison. When they reached the sunroom, they saw him bounding out the door. Upper half, human half, twisted in their direction; a look of joy and terror in the infant’s eyes. But the equine part would not stop…”

And I’m always interested to hear stories like this one, from the author’s note: “The first version of the story was rejected by about fifteen magazines and journals. I later rewrote it, adding the older brother and his point of view, and his character led me to the idea of the car crash. I’m thankful now for the failure of the first version, because this final one is much better.”

Enough teasing…get your own copy!

(Note to FTC Overlords: I bought this book with my own money. No freebies to report.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

More on Stephen Elliott and Discoveries in Writing

Speaking of Stephen Elliott—as I was yesterday, getting ramped up for his DC reading on November 20Maud Newton’s blog featured an interesting interview with Elliott. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here are a few tidbits I found especially interesting:

“But when I started writing The Adderall Diaries I had no idea the book would have anything to do with my relationship with my father. I think you do come to conclusions if you’re honestly exploring your motivations, but they’re not the ones you think….So yes, that’s the wonderful thing about writing (because it isn’t the money), that you achieve moments of insight and you realize things that are important, that you might not have known were important to you and who you are.”


“People say you can write about them. They encourage you to be honest, and what they mean is you can write about their good side and their bad side, but not about a side they didn’t know they had. People don’t see us as we see ourselves. I think Janet Malcolm put it best, that being written about is like failing a test you didn’t know you were taking.”

Read the rest here…and come to the reading on November 20!

Play Scrabble with the "Word Freak" Himself

This event that combines Scrabble and books was tucked away in the recent Politics and Prose bookstore newsletter:

Saturday, November 14, 8 p.m.
We will host a Scrabble tournament led by Stefan Fatsis, author of Word Freak. Come early and enter the drawing for a chance to play Stefan one-on-one, get a signed book, and learn from D.C.’s resident Scrabble expert. Email Conor Moran for more information.

I’m not much of a player, but I know you Scrabble fiends are out there!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Thanksgiving Stuffing Follow-Up

I posted my favorite Thanksgiving stuffing recipe last week, noting that the original recipe called for sausage that I omitted. I’ve had a few questions about that missing sausage, so if you’re interested in the sausage (and, honestly, when has sausage ever made anything worse?), the recipe calls for “3/4 lb bulk pork sausage” that you brown in a skillet. Remove it from the pan—leaving the fat—and proceed with cooking the onions, etc. in that same skillet. Add the sausage to the stuffing at the end, when you combine the cornbread and scallion with the onion mixture.

Stephen Elliott to Read on November 20

Writer Paula Whyman sends along this message:

“After reading an advance copy of Stephen Elliott’s new memoir, The Adderall Diaries, I offered to organize a local reading/discussion for the author. It’s a raw and edgy book, a combination true crime story and memoir about Elliott’s troubled relationship with his father. The author’s touring around the country, primarily on his own dime, to promote the book. It’s received praise from numerous quarters, including Kirkus, Vanity Fair, and Time Out. Many of you may be more familiar with his novel, Happy Baby, which also received wide acclaim, and was selected as a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lion award.”

Here are the details of the reading. I’ll be there for sure; Happy Baby is one of my favorite books of linked stories…and Teaism makes great oatmeal cookies!

Stephen Elliott: Featuring a talk by the author and readings from his highly praised new memoir THE ADDERALL DIARIES: a Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder.

Friday, November 20, 2009
Program: 7:00-9:00 p.m., (please arrive at 6:30 p.m. to place food and beverage orders)

TEAISM Penn Quarter
400 Eighth Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20004
(202) 638-6010
RSVP to: or
Co-sponsored by American Independent Writers (AIW)

In the spring of 2007, a brilliant and well-known computer programmer named Hans Reiser stands accused of murdering his beautiful, estranged wife, Nina. Despite a mountain of circumstantial evidence against him, he proclaims his innocence, and the body is yet to be found. The case takes an unusual twist when Nina’s former lover, and Hans’ former best friend, Sean Sturgeon, confesses to eight unrelated murders that no one has ever heard of.

When a reporter contacts Stephen Elliott about Sturgeon—whose path he has crossed in San Francisco’s underground S&M scene—Elliott is paralyzed by writer’s block, in the thrall of Adderall dependency, and despondent over his inability to maintain a stable romantic relationship. The reporter’s questions spur Elliott to rethink Sturgeon, and to wonder exactly what kind of person confesses to murders he likely did not commit? Perhaps a man like Elliott’s own father.

So begins a brave and riveting journey through a neon landscape of false confessions, self-medication, and torturous sex. Set against the backdrop of a nation at war, in the declining years of the Silicon Valley tech boom and the dawn of Paris Hilton’s celebrity, The Adderall Diaries is at once a gripping account of a murder trial and a scorching investigation of self. Tough, tender, and unflinchingly honest, it is a breakout book by one of the most daring writers of his generation.

“Elliot may be writing under the influence, but it’s the influence of genius,” Vanity Fair

“A refined, beautiful work of art,” Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Harrowing, riveting,” Amy Tan

Stephen Elliott is the author of seven books including The Adderall Diaries (September 2009) and Happy Baby, a finalist for the New York Public Library's Young Lion Award as well as a best book of 2004 in, Newsday, Chicago New City, the Journal News, and the Village Voice. In addition to writing fiction he frequently writes on politics. In 2004 he wrote Looking Forward To It, about the quest for the Democratic Presidential nomination. He is the editor of The Rumpus.

Books will be available for purchase and signing.

There is no charge for this event, but you are responsible for your food and beverage purchases.
RSVP to: or

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Work in Progress: Enduring, Prevailing

Writing isn’t hard like digging ditches (or raking leaves!) is hard, but it most definitely can be hard on the spirit sometimes. It’s bad when the words aren’t coming, but it’s a different, perhaps deeper and harder kind of bad you’re feeling that the world doesn’t care* about all your work: No one understands. No one believes. Geez, no one even reads anymore!

What’s a writer to do during those rough patches?

I turn to other writers and books. What wisdom might I find there? There’s Rilke reminding me that “patience is everything,” and there’s the crazy-funny, crazy-smart Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird reminding me that shitty first drafts are okay, and there’s the master, John Gardner, who combines inspiration with practical advice (the chapter in The Art of Fiction about plotting is superb), and there are any number of books on my “writing book shelf” that have dog-eared pages and underlined sentences that will speak to me.

But, honestly, the best antidote for this sort of deep-dark darkness is Faulkner’s speech at the Nobel award ceremony. I may have posted it before, but it’s time to look at it again. Read it out loud, if you have to. I defy any writer not to feel stirred by these words.

December 10, 1950: William Faulkner

“I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work - a life's work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing.

“Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

“He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

"Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

Go forth and write!

*Sad reality: Actually, the world doesn’t care. The trick, always, is to find ways to ignore this fact.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Late Bloomers

The Glimmer Train newsletter includes a nice piece by Barb Johnson called “On Getting a Late Start,” for late bloomers everywhere.

Enticing excerpt:

“At the University of New Orleans, I was not the oldest person in the program. Nor the most or least talented person. Nor the only person with a sense of being a late bloomer. Writing is a great equalizer. Writing classes are not easier because you're younger or older. We all make the same beginner's mistakes. One day, over beers at our neighborhood bar, a couple of classmates and I talked about how we felt like late bloomers. They were in their early thirties at the time, and I was almost fifty. Thirty-three seemed young to me, but I could remember being that age and thinking I was on the downward slope. Then others—some in their twenties and some in their sixties—told me they had this late-blooming feeling, and I came to realize that the feeling isn't about age so much as it is about finally paying attention to what it is you really want in life.”

Read the whole piece here.

Early Bloomers

Here are some contests for college undergrads and high school students…the previous post is about how it’s never too late to get started, and it’s also never too early, either!

For college undergraduates:

Spires Intercollegiate Arts & Literary Magazine at Washington University in St. Louis is now accepting submissions of poetry, prose, and artwork for the Fall 2009 issue! We've been in print since 1995, putting out a magazine every semester, and we're proud of what we do, but we couldn't function if it weren't for the talent and work of creative students here and abroad.

Should you like to heed our call and submit, please send your writing in Word document form or your artwork as .tif images in email attachments to:
Subject: Fall 2009 Submission.
Message body: Name, year, school.

The deadline for submissions is FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 6th.

The only limits on submissions are that prose may be no longer than 15 pages double spaced, and we only accept submissions from undergraduate students.


For high school students:

Sandra Caron Young Adult Poetry and the Rita Williams Young Adult Prose Prize are for writers in grades 9-12 or equivalent age thereof.

Up to three poems for Poetry category and up to 3,000 words for Prose. Cash Prizes.

Deadline November 30, 2009.


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Best Stuffing in the World

You might be thinking about your Thanksgiving menu already…I know I am. If so, it would be cruel of me not to remind you that I have a recipe for the best stuffing in the world. It’s from Gourmet (sigh), and I’ve been making it annually for, well, a REALLY long time!

Here’s the link to my original posting, but here’s the recipe.

Cornbread & Scallion Stuffing
Adapted from Gourmet, November 1992
(It’s actually called Cornbread, Sausage & Scallion Stuffing, but in an uncharacteristic nod to heart-health, I don’t put in the sausage.)

For the cornbread:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/3 cups yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon double-acting baking powder
1 teaspoon salt1 cup milk
1 large egg
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled

¾ stick unsalted butter plus an additional 2 tablespoons if baking the stuffing separately
2 cups finely chopped onion
1 ½ cups finely chopped celery
2 teaspoons crumbed dried sage
1 teaspoon dried marjoram, crumbled
1 teaspoon crumbled dried rosemary
½ cup thinly sliced scallions
1 ½ cups chicken broth if baking the stuffing separately

Make the cornbread: In a bowl stir together the flour, the cornmeal, the baking powder, and the salt. In a small bowl, whisk together the milk, the egg, and the butter, and add the milk mixture to the cornmeal mixture, and stir the batter until it is just combined. Pour the batter into a greased 8-inch-square baking pan (I actually use a cast iron skillet) and bake the cornbread in the middle of a preheated 425 F oven for 20-25 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. (The corn bread may be made 2 days in advance and kept wrapped tightly in foil at room temperature.)

Into a jellyroll pan, crumble the corn bread coarse, bake it in the middle of a preheated 325 F oven, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes, or until it is dry and golden, and let it cool.

In a large skillet, melt 6 tablespoons of butter and cook the onion and the celery over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened. Add the sage, marjoram, rosemary, and salt and pepper to taste and cook the mixture, stirring, for 3 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl, add the corn bread, the scallion, and salt and pepper to taste, and combine the stuffing gently but thoroughly. Let the stuffing cool completely before using it to stuff a 12-14 pound turkey.

The stuffing can be baked separately: Spoon the stuffing into a buttered 3- to 4-quart casserole, drizzle it with the broth, and dot the top with the additional 2 tablespoons of butter, cut into bits. Bake the stuffing, covered, in the middle of a preheated 325 F degree oven for 30 minutes and bake it, uncovered, for 30 minutes more.

Serves 8-10; fewer if I am one of the dinner guests!

Online Poetry Journal LOCUSPOINT Seeks Managing Editors

Here’s a good opportunity for the right person. This is from poet Charles Jensen’s blog. Along with serving as the Executive Director of the Writer’s Center, he edits LOCUSPOINT:

LOCUSPOINT seeks 1-2 co-managing editor volunteers.

LOCUSPOINT, an online poetry journal that explores creative work on a city-by-city basis, seeks 1-2 volunteers to join the team of managing editors who support the magazine's production and forward momentum.

The perfect teammates will have an interest and investment in contemporary American poetry; be knowledgeable of its practitioners, both established and emerging; have an interest in developing skills in literary magazine production and publication or marketing/promotion. Based on interest, the position would be broken up into production tasks and promotional tasks.

The new managing editor(s) will assist me with:
> communication and follow-up with guest editors in various cities (production)
> follow up with authors on edits to galleys (production)
> long term: assessment of past cities' links sections (production)
> oversight and management of LOCUSPOINT blog (promotion)
> assistance to editors in arranging local LOCUSPOINT readings (promotion)
> entrepreneurial efforts to widen the readership of LOCUSPOINT (promotion)

These are unpaid, for-the-love-of-it positions as LOCUSPOINT has no annual budget.

To apply, please send a resume and brief cover letter that describes your interest in working with LOCUSPOINT to by December 1, 2009.;

You can read LOCUSPOINT here.

Monday, November 2, 2009

David Leavitt Interview

The Writer’s Center blog posted a good interview with writer David Leavitt, who is also the editor of the literary journal Subtropics. I was interested to read that Subtropics is open to longer stories…sadly, a rarity these days:

"What would you say is the Subtropics aesthetic? What kind of work are you looking for?

"You know, we decided pretty early on that we didn’t want to have an aesthetic. We didn’t want to set up a standard—deliberately at least—of taste or style. We just wanted to publish work that we liked. And to try to be as open as we could be, and that’s sort of the philosophy of our MFA program, which our Web site kind of makes a big point. We don’t encourage any particular school of writing. We like diversity, and even perversity. And that’s because we have four wildly different fiction faculty. So we don’t really have an aesthetic, above and beyond the basic: quality, significance—in the sense that something really matters.

"There are two things we do that are unique. One: We really like to publish long pieces, which I know many magazines don’t. We’re open to novellas, and we’ve published at least two that are 15,000 words or more. So we don’t shut out the long piece. Two: We’re very committed to translations. We’re doing this all-translation issue coming up, which we hope to be part of a bi-annual translation issue. Part of the reason for this is that Sidney Wade, our poetry editor, is a translator (and the secretary of ALTA), and she’s been pushing the translation of poetry pretty heavily, including printing poetry translations with the original on the facing page. We have a strong commitment to the principle of translation, and want to continue to encourage translations."

Read the whole piece here.

Find the Cyber Book Party

I’m hoping to skip Twitter and go directly to the next New New Thing (anyone know what that is yet?), but for those of you twittering and tweeting, Galleycat steers you to a list of the best sources of literary chatter here.


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