Thursday, April 30, 2009

Work in Progress: Poem in Your Pocket Day

It’s the last day of National Poetry Month, and today has been designated as the second annual Poem in Your Pocket Day. From the www.poets.org site sponsored by the Academy of American Poets:

"The idea is simple: select a poem you love during National Poetry Month then carry it with you to share with co-workers, family, and friends on April 30, 2009."

You can find a whole list of poems to choose in the site's archives, and it’s interesting to read over the list of the most popular poems from last year, ranging from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee” to Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.”

Though today feels more like a “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” kind of day, that’s a little long to fit into my pocket, so given my obsession with villanelles, I’m going to select the always-popular “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop.

One Art
by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant to travel.
None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

As for my plans to celebrate the day: I imagine that having this poem in my pocket---so to speak--will inspire my writing today, helping me focus on the exact word, the small and perfect phrase...reminding me of the power and beauty of language. No big plot problems for today--just tiny moments, patiently building up one by one into a complete and absolute whole.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The "New Deal Washington" Tour

Pretty soon poet Kim Roberts will know something historic about every inch of D.C.! Here’s another one of her famous cultural walks around town:

Sunday May 3, and Saturday, May 16, 2009, 11:00 am to 12:30 pm
The Big Read DC cultural heritage tours.

Our book this year is Carson McCullers's The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Kim Roberts leads tours of "New Deal Washington" in the Foggy Bottom and Downtown neighborhoods surrounding the White House for The Humanities Council of Washington. Self-guided tour brochures now available online. Guided tours on the mornings of the two above dates are free, but space is limited, and advance reservations are required. Meet in front of DAR Constitution Hall, 311 18th St. NW. Rain or shine. To reserve, call (202) 387-8391 or email dcbigread@wdchumanities.org.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"Barbie Gets a Migraine"

Congratulations to poet (and guest blogger) Anna Leahy, who entered the “Putting Our Heads Together Poetry Contest,” the migraine poetry contest I mentioned here on my blog. Anna’s poem was selected as an “Honorable Mention.” Click on the title to read her excellent poem, Barbie Gets a Migraine. All of the entries from this year's contest will remain published on the site HERE.

Moon Rhymes with Goon

Having the zodiac sign of Cancer means I am a moonchild, which may explain why this contest appeals to me:

Moon Poem Broadside Contest – No Fee

Do you have a poem about the Moon? Moonlight? Phases or effects of the moon? What waxes or wanes? Clever personifications? Something new under the moon? Twin Cranes Press is sponsoring a free Moon poem broadside contest.

The winning entry will be produced in a limited, numbered edition of 100 copies, of which 25 go to the author and 75 will be sold to raise funds to support Moonlit, a Chicago-based literary journal edited by Lisa Janssen and Claire McMahon. In the event of a tie, the press may publish co-winners.

The fundraising event for Moonlit will be held in Cleveland on June 13th, and the winning poet will be invited to attend and read the winning entry. Twin Cranes Press of Canton, Ohio publishes occasional projects to raise funds to support journals, literary centers, and causes it deems worth. Winner(s) will be selected by the editors, Robert Miltner and Lisa Vargas.

The guidelines are simple and are as follows:
All forms of poetry considered
Include author contact information—name, address, phone number, email—on each submission
Poets should submit no more than three entries
Limit poems to approximately 30 lines12 point font, please
Previously published poems considered if poet holds copyright and publication information (journal, issue, year, page or website) is provided
Poems may be co-authored
Rights revert back to author upon printing
Electronic submissions only.

Send submissions to twincranespress@gmail.com
Put your last name in the subject line. Attach your poem(s) in a word file AND paste the poem(s) in 12 point font in the body of the email.

Deadline is midnight, May 31, 2009

Results of contest will be sent electronically after decisions are made

For questions, contact editors at twincranespess@gmail.com. Put “Question” in the subject line.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Beloved Index Cards, Redux

Knowing my love of index cards, Rebecca Thomas sent along a drool-worthy email from Levenger: high-quality index cards! Index card “bleachers” so your precious notes don’t get lost amidst the clutter of your desk! A folio for organizing index cards!

Yes, reader…I ordered them all.

I’m sure these fancy new office supplies will be just the trick to get my novel on track. In fact, when these new toys arrive on my doorstep, I’ll probably have to stop blogging because I’ll be compelled to write-write-write 24/7.

YA & Children's Fiction Contest

The young adult side of writing is really starting to get some (deserved) attention. Here’s a new contest for YA and children's writers:

Calling all YA and children’s writers! Hunger Mountain is thrilled to present the inaugural Katherine Paterson Prize for YA and Children’s Writing!

Hunger Mountain, the arts journal of Vermont College of Fine Arts, will launch our new online arts journal early this summer. Our new site will include YA and Children’s Literature; we’ll feature articles on hot topics and trends in YA and children’s literature, interviews with publishing industry insiders, and fiction selections by well-known and up-and-coming YA and children’s authors. Upcoming issues will feature pieces by Katherine Paterson, Carrie Jones, Cynthia Leitich Smith, K.A. Nuzum, Rita Williams-Garcia, Sara Zarr and many others!

Writers of Young Adult Fiction, Middle Grade Fiction, and Picture Books are encouraged to enter the Katherine Paterson Prize for YA and Children’s Writing. Newbery Award-winning author Katherine Paterson will judge. One winner will receive $1000.00 and publication in Hunger Mountain online, and two honorable mentions will receive $100.00 each. Entries may include:

-Young Adult Fiction (novel excerpt or short story)
-Middle Grade Fiction (novel excerpt or short story)
-Picture Book (text only)

Submission Fee: $20 per entry

Deadline: Entries must be postmarked by June 30th, 2009

Contest Guidelines: Your packet should include four items:
-A one-page cover sheet that includes:
Your name, address, email, and phone number
The title of your manuscript
The category of your manuscript (YA, MG, PB)
-A brief (one to two paragraph/200 word) bio of yourself
-A brief (one to two paragraph/250 word) synopsis of your manuscript
-Your manuscript:

Up to 5,000 words of middle grade/young adult fiction, or one picture book manuscript (text only)
Entries must be double-spaced, with margins of at least 1”
Please number the pages of your entry, and label each page with the title
Please DO NOT label the manuscript with your name (entries will be judged anonymously)
Please paperclip (do not staple) your entry

Entry Fee:Check or money order for $20, payable to Hunger Mountain
Self-addressed, stamped envelope for notification of award winners
A self-addressed, stamped postcard for us to acknowledge receipt of your entry (optional)

Packets should be mailed to:
Katherine Paterson Prize for YA and Children’s Writing
Hunger Mountain
Vermont College of Fine Arts
36 College Street
Montpelier, VT 05602

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Guest in Progress: C.M. Mayo

C.M. (Catherine) Mayo is one of my most inspiring writer friends. She’s:

--a marketing whiz (early to author web sites, early to blogging, early to Twitter, handing out her beautiful cards so deftly at a party that you don’t realize she’s “networking”)
--a smart and wonderful writer (I had the pleasure of reading through the lyrical drafts of her new novel in my writing group; watching her build that novel was like the magic of watching someone spin cotton candy)
--a fantastic editor (in that writing group I became so accustomed to her concern about my manuscript, “Leslie, I can’t see this scene,” that now when I’m revising I ask myself if Catherine could “see” this scene and then write until I think she can)
--a great teacher (her travel writing classes at the Writer’s Center and other venues are consistently popular, and do check out her year-long supply of 5-minute writing exercises here)
--a generous person (always quick with a suggestion about the perfect place to send your work or happy to recommend other writers for a speaking engagement)
--an excellent person all around (see for yourself at her book launch party on May 12; details here)

I’m so pleased that she has agreed to share this piece here. Listen…and learn from a master!

How to Hang in There and Finish Your Novel: 12 Tips
by C.M. Mayo

On May 5th, my novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, will be published by Unbridled Books. This is not a go-to-the-cabin-by-the-lake-and-just-churn-it-out kind of novel. No, it is a nearly 500 page historical epic based on extensive original research, every line of prose polished to shine like the lighthouse in Alexandria, with more characters than you could pack into a Starbuck's and a plot that could only be described as labyrinthically Arabesque. Is it any good? You be the judge. What I know for sure is that, over the more than seven years it took me to write it, I hung in there. I never gave up. And I finished. And then I sold it. How did I do it? Herewith one dozen tips:

1. Before you begin, state your intentions clearly
It's important to write them down, stating them clearly, and in present tense. For example, I write a novel that... you fill in the blanks. I don't mean, write down what your novel is about; you might have to fiddle around for a few hundred pages before you figure that out. But ask yourself, do you want to write a novel that places you among the immortal literary stars? Or achieve a modest success that might help you get a teaching job? Or, do you just watch to check "publish book" off your "to-do" list? And how much time and effort are you willing to put into the enterprise of finding a publisher? It might be lickety-split easy to find one, or it might take a few years, a bundle of postage, and a mountain of paperwork. Not to mention heartbreak. Whatever your path may be, it will be more difficult if you have not clearly identified and acknowledged your intentions.

2. Be here now
If you are regretting the past (I should have started sooner) or worrying about the future (will they laugh at me?), you are not writing. And if you are waxing nostalgic about the past (how wonderful that they liked my short story!) or daydreaming about the future (my agent will sell it to the movies for a million dollars!!), you are not writing. Now is the only time you have to write.

3. Treat yourself kindly
If you do, your artist self will show up more frequently, and play more freely. If you bully and criticize yourself, you can sure, you'll end up blocked.

4. Keep a pen and something to write on with you at all times
When you're out and about, driving, at the dentist's, walking the dog, you just might capture the perfect fragment of dialogue, or hear the opening line of the next chapter in your head... I don't recommend those lovely bound "writer's" journals because they are too big to carry around easily. I use Moleskines, index cards and sometimes even a small pack of Post-Its.

5. When you are writing, always keep your pen resting lightly on the page (if at the computer, keep your fingers on the keyboard)
If you sit back in your chair and lift your hand to your chin, as so many people do, your body is signalizing to your writing self, no, I am not ready. This can contribute to a bad case of block. It's such a simple thing to always keep your pen on the page, yet very effective.

6. Music helps
I find that drifty, new agey music in a minor key works best for bringing on the Muses. There is a large literature about music and creativity. I offer a couple of blog posts (with links for more information) on this subject here:
http://madammayo.blogspot.com/2006/03/book-that-has-rung-gong-for-madam-mayo.html#links
and here:
http://madammayo.blogspot.com/2006/07/soundwork-don-campbells-essence.html

7. Mise-en-place
This is a French term chefs use (http://www.reluctantgourmet.com/mis_en_place.htm )that means, more or less, everything in its place. Briefly: start clean, then assemble utensils and equipment; then assemble all ingredients; then wash, cut, chop; then cook. Doing things out of order makes the whole process take longer, the product often come out mediocre (or ruined), and can cause needless stress for the cook and the diners. This explains why many of the most productive writers write in coffee shops and the rest of them do a lot of housecleaning, n'est-ce pas? It's not the easiest thing to write a novel when your desk is cluttered with phone bills and stacks of unanswered letters, the dog needs to be walked in five minutes, and, by the way, you've left the phone on and your facebook page tab open. There are people who can work amongst piles and general chaos, but I am not one of them, and I cannot recommend it.

P.S. Read my ForeWord Magazine on-line blog post, "10 Tools for Organizing the Novel in Progress":
http://www.forewordmagazine.com/blogs/insider/PermaLink%2Cguid%2C235068fc-fd38-4df6-ad63-bb54c9e117fe.aspx

8. Learn from other novels
The novels you have already read and love can be your best teachers. But don't read them passively, for entertainment; neither should you read as an English major might, ferreting out "interpretations." Read them as a craftsperson. How does Chekhov handle dialogue? How does Austen handle transitions? How does Hemingway describe food and clothing? Any question you have about your writing conundrums is probably answered, right there, in the books you already have on your shelf. And continue to read, and read actively, with a notebook and pen.

9. Learn from books on creativity
Why reinvent the wheel? Whatever your problem (block, confusion, utter despair), you can be sure another writer (or artist) has wrestled with it and has something helpful to say about it in a book. The cost of a book is lentils compared to that of needlessly painful experiences. You'll find my list of recommended books here:
http://www.cmmayo.com/workshop-recommended-reading.html

10. Get feedback on your writing
From a writers group, a writing teacher, a freelance editor, workshop participants. You'll find my 10 tips to get the most out of your writing workshop here:
http://workinprogressinprogress.blogspot.com/search?q=tips+for+writing+workshop+Mayo

(For some years I was in a writing group with Leslie Pietrzyk, hostess of this blog; read what she has to say about it here:
http://workinprogressinprogress.blogspot.com/2007/10/work-in-progress-my-fabulous-writing.html).


11. Get to know other writers
This is how I found my writers group (thanks, Richard Peabody!), my publisher (thanks, Nancy Zafris!), and my agent (thanks, Dawn Marano!).

Richard Peabody:
http://www.gargoylemagazine.com/richard/richard.html
Nancy Zafris:
http://www.unbridledbooks.com/luckystrike.html
Dawn Marano:
http://www.dawnmarano.com/

[Editor's note: I wasn't exaggerating Catherine's generosity in my intro, was I!?]

Network with a spirit of generosity. You never know who will help you, and you might be more helpful to someone else than you realize. So, go to readings (they are almost all free!); take workshops, attend conferences, and stay in touch.

12. Consistent Resilient Action
Again, why reinvent the wheel? Writers are not the only ones who grapple with their emotions in the face of rejection, failure, criticism, and indifference. There is a large literature on sports psychology. The book I recommend most highly is The Mental Edge by Kenneth Baum.
http://madammayo.blogspot.com/2008/09/mental-edge-by-kenneth-baum-and-other.html

Consistent Resilient Action (CRA) is what sports champions do: Dropped the ball? Well, pick it up. So, your first draft is crap? Write a new one. An agent rejected you? Send your manuscript to the next one. Take a workshop, get feedback, re-read Proust, go write a poem--- and so on. In response to anything negative, it is crucial to take a positive step, however small, and immediately.

P.S. More resources for you here:
http://www.cmmayo.com/workshop-resources-for-writers.html

And good wishes. ~~C.M. Mayo


About: C.M. Mayo is the author of the novel The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, as well as 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 Award for Short Fiction. Founding editor of Tameme, the bilingual Spanish/English chapbook press, Mayo is also a translator of contemporary Mexican poetry and fiction. Her anthology of Mexican fiction in translation, Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion, was published by Whereabouts Press in March 2006.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Fun Research

I’ve been working on a chapter about a dinner party in Chicago, in 1899, and have been looking through an online edition of Mrs. Isabella Beeton’s All About Cookery, the 1900 edition, and have become intrigued with many recipes. It’s a British book, so I don’t think my characters would be eating grouse or those odd puddings that Brits seem obsessed with, but I thought I would be safe having my character Lucy serve these potatoes, which sound vaguely similar to our scalloped potatoes. Of course, she has a cook to make them for her, which would really make life a lot easier.

Potatoes a la Maitre d’Hotel

INGREDIENTS—Potatoes, salt and water; to every 6 potatoes allow 1 tablespoon of minced parsley, 2 oz. of butter, pepper and salt to taste, 4 tablespoonsful of gravy, 2 tablespoonsful of lemon-juice.
Wash the potatoes clean, and boil them in salt and water; when they are done, drain them, let them cool; then peel and cut the potatoes into thick slices: if these are too thin, they will break in the sauce. Put the butter into a stewpan with the pepper, salt, gravy and parsley; mix these ingredients well together, put in the potatoes, shake them two or three times, that they may be well covered with the sauce, and when quite hot through, squeeze in the lemon-juice, and serve.

TIME.—1/2 to ¾ hour to boil the potatoes; 10 minutes for them to heat in the sauce.

SEASONABLE all the year.

I do love that the book is online and so accessible—but, oh, how I wish I had a copy to hold and sniff and thumb through (it’s almost 500 pages). Adobe Reader, I love you…but you’ll always be a poor replacement for yellowed, musty, old-book paper.

The Red Carpet: PEN/Faulkner Award Ceremony

A party I’d love to attend…or even hear about vicariously:

The TWENTY-NINTH ANNUAL PEN/FAULKNER AWARD CEREMONY

Honoring
Joseph O’Neill • Sarah Shun-lien Bynum • Susan Choi • Richard Price • Ron Rash

Marie Arana, Master of Ceremonies

Saturday, May 9, 2009 at 7:00 pm
Folger Shakespeare Library
201 East Capitol Street SE
Washington, DC 20003

For tickets, please call 202-544-7077 or purchase online here

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Right Writing Books

What are the writing books you turn to again and again, that you can’t live without? Here, Sarah Pekkanan answers that question in a piece that aired on NPR:

“I needed advice before I tried to write a novel. The usual axiom — write what you know — wasn't helpful. I spend my days driving my older children to school and changing my younger one's diaper — not exactly best-seller material.

“So I turned to experts. Three books gave me invaluable writing advice. One, by a best-selling writer; one, by a top New York agent; and one, by a guy who struggled for years to learn how to write a book and wanted to make it easier for the rest of us”

As for me, I’ve imposed various quotations from John Gardner on many, many classes, so I’d have to give the nod to his two great writing books: The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is the one I turn to when I’m feeling discouraged, and my new favorite for exercises is Naming the World, edited by Bret Anthony Johnston. I like the craft essays in Creating Fiction edited by Julie Checkoway.

And to learn plot, structure, and everything you need to know to write a novel…you guessed it: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Tweet: Not Just a Sign of Spring

Okay, I just got on Facebook, so I don’t think I’m ready for the leap into Twitter yet. I prefer to wait until, you know, all the cool techie people have already moved into the next new New Thing. But if you’re thinking about tweeting, here’s a good guide to the whole thing, geared toward writers, from the always useful Book Publicity Blog.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Writer + Writer = Happy Marriage?

Here’s a very funny piece that draws back the curtain on what it’s like when two writers marry. (Via Galleycat)

Enticing excerpt:

“Just as people prefer their mathematicians to be endearingly deranged, most people prefer their writers to be lonely schlubs. They seem to look at two writers living together as somehow unnatural, a zookeeper’s mistake. Perhaps it goes against our idea of how writers should be spending their time. If they’re not masturbating in the middle of the day, we expect them to be hunting lions or shooting apples off women’s heads or matching drinks with famous painters. We expect them to be suicidal or drug-addicted or generally unhinged. Certainly we expect them to mistreat their spouses, those long-suffering caregivers. We do not expect them to put Elmo puppets on their hands or watch reality TV with their families or launch inquests into who left the washcloth at the bottom of the tub.³”

You’ll have to go here to read the rest, including the spouse’s footnote!

Fellowship for Nonfiction Writers

An announcement from my beloved (and sorely missed) VCCA:

The VCCA is accepting applications for the Goldfarb Family Fellowship for Nonfiction Writers. This is a fully funded two-week residency where a nonfiction writer may concentrate solely on his or her creative work. As with all residencies at the VCCA, writers will be provided a private bedroom, separate studio, and three prepared meals a day, in the company of 23 visual artists, composers and other writers. The postmark deadline is May 15. The application process is the same as the regular VCCA application process, but we must have work samples, so applicants may not submit a re-application. You may obtain an application by visiting our web site.

D.C. Legend to Read at A Space Inside Reading Series

Upcoming reading with E. Ethelbert Miller:

E. Ethelbert Miller will read from his recently published second memoir, The 5th Inning, as a part of A Space Inside on Wednesday, April 22 at 7 p.m. at Riverby Books on Capitol Hill.

E. Ethelbert Miller is a literary activist. He is the director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University. Mr. Miller is also the board chair of the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank located in Washington, D.C. He is a board member of The Writer's Center and editor of Poet Lore magazine. The author of several collections of poems, his last collection How We Sleep On The Nights We Don't Make Love (Curbstone Press, 2004) was an Independent Publisher Award Finalist. Miller received the 1995 O.B. Hardison Jr. Poetry Prize. He was awarded in 1996 an honorary doctorate of literature from Emory & Henry College. In 2003 his memoir Fathering Words: The Making of An African American Writer (St. Martin's Press, 2000), was selected by DC WE READ for its one book, one city program sponsored by the D.C. Public Libraries. In 2004 Miller was awarded a Fulbright to visit Israel. Poets & Writers presented him with the 2007 Barnes & Noble/ Writers for Writers Award. In March 2009, Busboys and Poets Press published The 5th Inning, a second memoir. Mr. Miller is often heard on National Public Radio (NPR).

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 09jacobe@cua.edu.

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

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Work in Progress: John Guzlowski

All writers are familiar with the seesaw of good days and bad days. How to balance this emotional challenge and get your writing done? Samuel Beckett famously said, “You must go on, I can’t go on, I go on,” which makes it all sound so much easier than it is, at least in terms of the empty computer screen.

Here’s some inspiring advice from poet/fiction writer John Guzlowski. I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen John read his poems several times, and have always been left in teary emotional knots. I highly recommended his collection of poems, Lightning and Ashes, and I eagerly await his novel.

Writing as an Incremental Art
By John Guzlowski

When you’re a writer, there are bad days and good days. Some days, you sit and write, and the words feel like they’re in someone else’s head; and some days, you write and the writing is fast and right, and you think that each word is a gift from some muse that really and completely likes and cares for you and what you have to say.

That’s the way it is for all of us, I think, but one of the things that I've come to feel about writing on bad days as well as good ones is that the progress, the movement forward, the work, is all important. It doesn't matter finally if the writing I’m doing is going bad or going good, just so long as I keep writing. Putting one word after another, the bad days will give way to good days because writing is an incremental art. One word after another, and another word after that.

This word-by-word idea came to me from listening to the painter Chuck Close do an interview with Terry Gross on "Fresh Air" a couple years ago. I was just starting to write my first novel then; I had finished the first chapter, and I was looking at the tall hill of the second chapter, and the long row of hills and mountains beyond that. Finishing that novel seemed impossible. I had been writing poems for the last thirty-five years and was comfortable working with poems. Unlike novels, they live in little spaces, valleys and small plots of earth. I hadn't written fiction of any kind since I was in college 35 years ago, and I was sure I couldn't move beyond that first chapter.

Then I heard that Chuck Close interview.

I love his portraits, his giant canvases, 15 and 20 feet high and almost as wide. There a human marvel. Terry asked him how he manages to create those mountains of paintings, and he said something that stopped me. He said that painting was an incremental art, one dot of paint and then another.

I had seen his paintings close up years ago at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and I knew just what he meant. If you look at those giant canvases what you see is that each one is made up of thousands and maybe hundreds of thousands of little dabs of paint, each dab almost a perfect moment of painting in itself. A little Jackson Pollock dab of painting -- one right next to another and another and another.

And I started thinking of my novel that way, each word, each line, each paragraph. One dab of words after another.

I knew I could write a word--it wasn't daunting to do that. And I knew I could write a line. And I figured I could keep going and going, one word after another after another.

And I did.

I finished my first novel and it came to 98,643 words, and all of them are on a literary agent’s desk right now, and I’m working on my second novel. I’m on word 1, 798 and climbing.

Like Rilke says, “Patience is everything.”

You can hear a podcast of Terry Gross’s interview at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1748083

Here’s a link to Chuck Close’s website:
http://www.chuckclose.coe.uh.edu/life/index.html

~~John Guzlowski

About: John Guzlowski’s poetry has been read on Garrison Keillor's Writers’ Almanac and has appeared in The Ontario Review, Chattahoochee Review, Nimrod, Margie, Exquisite Corpse and other journals here and in Europe. His poems about his Polish parents’ experiences in Nazi concentration camps appear in his books Lightning and Ashes and Third Winter of War: Buchenwald. Third Winter was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. You can hear Garrison Keillor read his poem "What My Father Believed" at http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/programs/2007/12/24/#friday
And he blogs about his parents and their lives at http://lightning-and-ashes.blogspot.com/.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

200 Million Plus 1

I read in the paper that Facebook recently signed up its 200 millionth account—I’m pretty sure that was me! Yes, I finally succumbed, so, here I am using “friend” as a verb: please friend me! And please forgive my lack of knowledge of Facebook etiquette…if you write on my wall, should I immediately go write on yours? Is sending a message the equivalent of passing notes in class? How many friends do I need to feel “popular”? Is it even "cool" to ask people to friend me?? Should I just go find the drama geeks right now?

Word Collage in Leesburg

An upcoming event I’ll be participating in:

Unlocking Your Creative Side Through Word Collage
Speaker: Leslie Pietrzyk
Free-write exercises are meant to let your mind simply flow onto paper. Using these exercises, see how you can pick out the words and phrases that really sing and how they can be gathered and combined to create new stories or enhance something you’re working on. Bring paper and pen and be ready to unlock your creativity!

Friday, May 1, 2009
7:30 to 9:30 PM
Northern Virginia Writers (NVW)
2009 First Friday Events
Leesburg Town Hall
Lower Level Meeting Room
25 West Market Street
Leesburg, VA 20176

General Admission: $6
Admission for Writer’s Center members and Town of Leesburg residents: $4

For more information, go here.

Richmond Event: Building a Writing Career

I would consider driving down 95 to attend this event:

The Writing Show: Building A Writing Career
Literary magazines, MFA programs, writers conferences, contests and the necessary art of rejection.

Featuring:
--Colleen Curran, author of Whores on the Hill and with many short stories published in various literary magazines.
--Thom Didato, VCU graduate programs director and founding editor of failbetter.com.
--Mary Flinn, senior editor of Blackbird and director of New Virginia Review.
--And your host, Virginia Pye, James River Writers Co-Chair.

April 30, 6:30-8:30 PM
The Children's Museum of Richmond
2626 West Broad Street
$10 in advance/$12 at the door/$5 for students

For more information and online registration visit jamesriverwriters.org

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

April Is for Chaucer

I’ve discovered Poetry Daily, which is sending out a poem of the day during National Poetry Month as part of a fund-raising project for the site’s work. Poets select older poems and offer commentary…which is always helpful when one is contemplating Chaucer.

Here’s today’s pick, selected by Elise Partridge, who was at VCCA with me. I recently bought her new collection, Chameleon Hours, and it is amazing. To read some of Elise’s poems, you can go here (Writer’s Almanac) or here (Washington Post’s "Poet’s Choice" column).

As for Chaucer and what all those unspell-checkable words mean….read on!

TROUTHE
Balade de Bon Conseyl
by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400)

Fle fro the prees, and dwelle with sothfastness,
Suffise unto thy good, though it be smal;
For hord hath hate, and clymbyng tykelnesse,
Prees hath envye, and wele blent over-al;
Savour no more than thee bihove shal;
Reule wel thyself, that other folk canst rede;
And trouthe thee shal delivere, it is no drede.

Tempest thee nought al croked to redresse,
In trust of hir that turneth as a bal:
Gret reste stant in litel besynesse;
Be war also to spurne ayeyns an al;
Stryve not, as doth the crokke with the wal.
Daunte thyself, that dauntest otheres dede;
And trouthe thee shal delivere, it is no drede.

That thee is sent, receyve in buxumnesse;
The wrestling for this world axeth a fal.
Here is non home, here nis but wyldernesse:
Forth, pilgrym, forth! Forth, beste, out of thy stal!
Know thy contree, look up, thank God of al;
Hold the heye wey, and lat thy gost thee lede;
And trouthe thee shal delivere, it is no drede.

Envoy
Therfore, thou Vache, leve thine old wrechedenesse;
Unto the world leve now to be thral;
Crie him mercy, that of his hye godnesse
Made thee of nought, and in especial
Draw unto him, and pray in general
For thee, and eek for other, hevenlych mede;
And trouthe thee shal delivere, it is no drede.


Elise Partridge Comments:
This poem has been a favorite of mine for many years because it combines wisdom with humor, and may also have been written to cheer and encourage a friend. I first heard it read aloud one night at dinner by one of my own friends; a few weeks later, I signed up for my first course in medieval literature. W. H. Auden once suggested that one good reason for taking English courses was to get needed assistance with poets such as Milton or Chaucer; I was lucky enough to have a wonderfully undogmatic professor who made The Canterbury Tales my happiest literary discovery at college.

Sympathy for and generosity toward his fellow human beings are marked features of Chaucer’s poetry, and one scholar has proposed that these qualities could have motivated this lyric too. According to Edith Rickert, “Trouthe” was addressed to a friend of Chaucer’s, Sir Philip la Vache (1346-1408), who, though successful and wealthy, may have suffered setbacks at some point, to which this poem responds. “Trouthe”’s advocacy of austerity and self-discipline draws on the work of the Roman Boethius, who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy in 524 AD when he was imprisoned awaiting execution. Like other medieval writers, Chaucer conveys a Boethian rejection of worldliness in a Christian context.

As readers familiar with him will recall, Chaucer used the rhyme royal stanza frequently, both in some of his longer works and in lyrics like this one. The rhyme has helped various sections stay in my memory, and they’ve returned to me often, for example when I’ve gone through difficult times or witnessed others struggling.

“Trouthe” exhorts its readers to depart “far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife”; dwell with truthfulness and, have no fear, it will deliver you. Let what you have suffice, even if it’s meager, because piling things up and hoarding them involves a kind of hatred. (The Variorum Chaucer explains that the expression “Suffise unto thy good” comes from a Latin proverb—“Si res tue tibi non sufficiant, fac ut rebus tuis sufficias”: If your possessions are not sufficient for you, make yourself sufficient for your possessions.) Rank ambition is a ticklish thing; envy abounds. Prosperity can blind; don’t indulge a taste for more than behooves you. Govern yourself well, so you can advise others well (Vache, a powerful man, apparently bore many responsibilities). Don’t rush around frantically trying to fix everything that’s wrong with the world; fortune changes so constantly that it’s na├»ve to expect your repair-work to last. Don’t invest in futile battles that will be as productive as tussling with an awl, or bickering like a crock with a wall. Whatever you’re given, receive it in humility. Wrestling for things of this world is asking for “a fal[l]”.

But Chaucer doesn’t recommend simply withdrawing and giving up; far from it. “Forth, pilgrym, forth! Forth, beste, out of thy stal!” (Many scholars see a pun here on Vache’s last name, French for “cow.”) “Know thy contree”—one scholar glosses this as “know [your] proper sphere”; take the high road, and let your conscience lead you.

As I’ve paraphrased it, of course, all this might sound about as welcome as a Polonius lecture. But Chaucer’s jokes keep the tone light, even as the sturdiness of the stanza and the refrain help make the advice memorable.

The fourth stanza strikes me as somewhat colorless, lacking the appealing imagery and wit of the first three. In other poems where Chaucer uses an envoy, such as "Complaint to his Purse," this section can also seem rather bland. In the French balades which are models for this poem, it was conventional for the concluding envoy to address a patron or other recipient, and/or to provide a summary of the poem's content.

As Chaucer readers know, we can’t be sure how medieval English was pronounced, but what evidence we have suggests that long “i”’s (which can also be written in Middle English as “y”) were pronounced like long “e”’s, and long “e”’s like the long “a” in “day.” Chaucer’s long “a,” in turn, is like the “a” in “father.” “Ou” is pronounced like the vowel in “goo,” and “oo” somewhat like that in “go.” (Modern versions of Chaucer's words are your best guide to which vowels are long; vowels that are long in the modern words usually will be long also in Middle English.) In addition, the short “u” in “but,” for example, is like the vowel in the modern “put,” rather than that in "putt." Explanations like this, though, are cumbersome; if you would like to download an MP3 sound file of the poem being read in Middle English by a Chaucer scholar, please go to the following link:

http://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/spartrid/audio/trouthe.mp3


About Elise Partridge:
Elise Partridge's first book, Fielder’s Choice, was published in 2002. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, The New Yorker, the New Republic, and elsewhere. A dual citizen of the United States and Canada, she has taught literature and writing at several universities and currently works as an editor and tutor.


And a pitch for Poetry Daily:

Don't forget! If you enjoy our regular features and special events like this one, please join Elise Partridge in supporting Poetry Daily by making a tax-deductible contribution here.

Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Shame

Independent bookstore Vertigo Books in College Park, Maryland, is closing.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game: Ron Santo Baseball Giveway!

Since today is Opening Day for the Washington Nationals, husband Steve has come up with two fabulous treats:

--The first treat is just for me…sorry. Tickets to the game! Yes, I will be on hand to see our own 0-6 Nationals trounce the world champion Philadelphia Phillies. I’m a big baseball fan, but I’ve never been to an Opening Day, so this is exciting for me. We’ll also get a peek at President Obama’s pitching skills, as he’s set to throw out the first pitch.

--The second treat involves a vaster field…former Cubs should-be-Hall-of-Famer Ron Santo was a guest at Steve’s recent convention event and Steve happens to have an extra autographed baseball…that he will donate to one lucky blog reader who’s also “a true blue Cubbie baseball fan”* (or knows one).

Steve wanted entrants to write up 250 words on a great baseball moment in your life, but I talked him down from that, so now he only wants to hear your favorite baseball book/poem/movie/song/Little League moment etc. (Believe me, this is better than what I would have requested: a prediction for when the Cubs will win the Series again; ball to be mailed on that day.)

So…one free authographed Ron Santo baseball goes to one entrant selected at random who emails me the following:

Name
Mailing address
Favorite baseball book/movie/poem/song/Little League or MLB moment etc.
Please put BASEBALL in the subject line.

Deadline: Thursday, April 16, 5 PM EST

*Steve’s exact words!

Writer's Center Small Press Fair, Plus More

The Writer’s Center will be hosting a number of events during the 2009 Bethesda Literary Festival on April 17 and 18.

Friday, April 17 at 7:30 P.M.
The Writer's Center will host a reading and discussion with Kimberly Dozier (CBS News Correspondent who was wounded in Baghdad in 2006) and E.J. Dionne (Washington Post columnist).

For further information about this event or to register, visit the Web site here.

Saturday Events, April 18
Noon-5:00 P.M
Meet editors and publishers of literary journals and small presses at the Small Press Fair. Participants include The National Endowment for the Arts, Abbey, Barrelhouse, Cherokee Books, The Delmarva Review, Gargoyle/Paycock Press, GirlChild Press, Gival Press. Kings Estate Press, Little Patuxent Review, little press books, Poet Lore, Potomac Review, Pretend Genius, Settlement House, Toad Hall Press, Washington Writers' Publishing House, SFWP, and Wineberry Press.

For further information about this event or to register, visit the Web site here.

1:00-2:30 P.M.
Creative Writing for Younger Children with long-time Writer's Center Workshop Leader Sally Canzoneri. This is a free activity "workshop" for kids.

7:30 P.M.
Poetry reading by David Keplinger and Michael Collier. The reading will be followed by a reception and book signing.

For further information about this event or to register, visit the Web site here.

8:30 P.M.
Bethesda Idol
The Writer's Center hosts Bethesda Idol. Similar to the pop culture TV show, this will be an opportunity to have your work judged by industry professionals: literary agents Deborah Grosvenor (from Kneerim & Williams) Jeff Kleinman (from Folio Literary Management) and Paige Wheeler (from Folio Literary Management).To participate, please STAPLE together your entry in the following order: (1) a cover sheet with your project's name, genre, and "tag line" (a one-to three-sentence description of your story), (2) one-page query letter addressed to "Dear Agent," and (3) the first three pages of your book. DO NOT include identifying information on any page of your submission. All genres are welcome (except children's, young adult, poetry, plays, or screenplays). Prizes include free tuition to a multi-session Writer's Center workshop (up to a $345 value), and a free one-year membership to The Writer's Center. Please bring submissions to The Writer's Center no later than 8:15 P.M.

For further information about this event or to register, visit the Web site here.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Big Day

According to today’s Writer’s Almanac:

“It was on this day in 1925 that F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby was published.”

Champagne and cake for everyone!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Work in Progress: What's on the Poetry Shelf?

In honor of National Poetry Month, I thought I’d look at my own shelf of poetry books and share a random sampling of what’s there:

--There are three books of poetry on my “favorite books” shelf,
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Mark Strand, The Continuous Life
T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems

--Also on the “favorite books” shelf is a memoir about poets:
Poets in Their Youth, by Eileen Simpson, who was married to John Berryman

--I own one book signed by a Nobel laureate: Collected Poems, 1948-1984 by Derek Wolcott. He taught at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference one year, and our “personal” interaction was limited to my standing in line to get this book signed (with my name, his name, and the date).

--I have two books leftover from college days (along with the Eliot and Whitman, above): Selected Poems by W.H. Auden and Selected Poems of William Butler Yeats. It’s fun—though highly embarrassing—to leaf through the books and find my “insightful” notes—i.e. “ambivalent message about attitude to Y.” found at the end of Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.”

--When I got married to Steve, I read to him a poem I found in Jane Kenyon’s Otherwise (“Coming Home at Twilight in Late Summer”). He read to me a poem from Donald Justice’s New and Selected Poems, “On an Anniversary.” My copy of the Justice book is signed, which also was a result of being at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.

--I also had many books of poetry signed during my visits to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, including Shells by Craig Arnold and Tug by G.E. Patterson, both of whom were fellows the year I was a fellow.

--Lest you think it’s all men on these shelves, here are some books by female poets:
Happy Family by Jane Shore
PM/AM by Linda Pastan
Power Politics by Margaret Atwood
Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath
The Country Between Us by Carolyn Forche
What the Living Do by Marie Howe

--This book of poems made me cry nonstop: Without by Donald Hall

--I have an early, hardcover book by a former teacher: An Afternoon of Pocket Billiards by Henry Taylor. (Unfortunately, I bought this book used, from the Strand Bookstore for some ridiculously low price…even more unfortunately, I made the mistake of telling my teacher this. He still signed it anyway.)

--And here are some books written by poets whose work I love AND who are friends of mine:
Chameleon Hours by Elise Partridge
House Without a Dreamer by Andrea Hollander Budy
Inventory at the All-Night Drugstore by Erika Meitner
Toward Any Darkness by Rick Mulkey
Constituents of Matter by Anna Leahy
The Wishbone Galaxy by Kim Roberts
Buoyancy by Richard Peabody
Lightning and Ashes by John Guzlowski
Amber Necklace from Gdansk by Linda Nemec Foster

--Multiples of Marks: I have more than one book by Mark Strand and by Mark Jarman.

--Odd way to conclude: Almost all the spines on the shelf are a somber color or white. Some exceptions:
Constituents of Matter by Anna Leahy (vivid lime green)
Buoyancy by Richard Peabody (bright yellow)
Power Politics by Margaret Atwood (orange)
Blizzard of One by Mark Strand (fire engine red & royal blue)
Yeats (red)
Chameleon Hours by Elise Partridge (shimmering turquoise)
Before the Age of Reason by Richard Mulkey (burnt orange)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

West Virginia Poetry Workshop

Andrea Hollander Budy, an old Sewanee friend, will be offering the following poetry workshop in Shepherdstown, WV:

I’m giving a one-day poetry writing workshop in Shepherdstown, West Virginia (1½ hours by car from Washington DC) on Saturday, May 16, 9:30 a.m. till 4 p.m. The workshop is limited to 10 practicing poets (though not necessarily published ones) and will be closed as soon as that limit is reached, so those interested should register early. Cost: $85 prepaid or $100 on site. A nonrefundable deposit of $20 is required before April 30. Below is a general outline of what to expect and how to prepare.

9:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Conversation Pieces
An often difficult aspect of writing a poem is knowing how and where to begin—and afterwards
traveling deeply enough. Sometimes we must trick ourselves in order to achieve this. Through a
series of exercises designed to jumpstart writers into beginning without hesitation and
exploring the often rich and surprising arena they may find themselves, participants will draft
new poems.

12:00 – 1:30 p.m. Lunch break (bring your own lunch or eat at a local restaurant)

1:30 – 4:00 p.m.
Re-vision Matters
Drafting a poem is only the first step towards the creation of a successful poem. This is an
opportunity for participants to learn perhaps new approaches to revising a poem already in
progress but is, for some reason(s), not yet working. Bring eleven copies (one for each
participant, including yourself and Andrea) of two “troubled” poems—poems that don’t quite
work and that you’re having trouble fixing. As we examine these poems, we will discuss a
variety of ways to approach their revision.

For more information about Andrea: http://www.andreahollanderbudy.com/
To register: please email Andrea at ahbudy@mvtel.net to get payment information.
For information on lodging, contact event organizer Hope Snyder in Shepherdstown at hms@hbp.com.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Purpose of Workshops

I liked this piece suggesting that the real benefit of workshops is not getting your work critiqued but learning to critique the work of others:

“"You become a strong writer by writing critiques, not reading them, " I say [to students]. Being forced to analyze the effectiveness of other writers' stories and to then provide them with clear, concise, specific suggestions for improvement will do more to develop a writer's craft than almost anything else. Through this process writers develop a stronger objectivity about their own work, sharpen their critical thinking skills, and hone their language. A writer can't always recognize flat dialogue or abrupt scenes or uneven pacing in her own work, but she can sure as hell see it in someone else's. And the more adept she becomes at identifying it elsewhere, the more easily that skill becomes adapted into her own writing—it becomes second nature.”

The essay was written by Jeremiah Chamberlin for Glimmer Train.

Call for Proposals: Split This Rock Poetry Festival 2010

Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness invites poets, writers, activists, and all concerned citizens to Washington, DC, March 10-13, 2010 for four days of poetry, community building, and creative transformation as our country continues to grapple with two wars, a crippling economic crisis, and other social and environmental ills.

The festival will feature readings, workshops, panel discussions, youth programming, film, activism -- opportunities to imagine a way forward, hone our community and activist skills, and celebrate the many ways that poetry can act as an agent for social change.

We invite you to send proposals for panel discussions, group readings, roundtable discussions, workshops, and small-scale performances on a range of topics at the intersection of poetry and social change. Possibilities are endless. Challenge us.

The deadline is May 30, 2009.
Details and guidelines are online at: www.splitthisrock.org/documents/2010_panel_proposals.doc

Discussion and community building are at the heart of Split This Rock. We value diversity, creativity, and new ideas. Check out last year's schedule for inspiration: www.splitthisrock.org/schedule.html.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Cheever's Journals, the Inside Story

Here’s an interesting piece at Slate by Blake Bailey who wrote the recent John Cheever biography. Apparently, Cheever’s famous journals were (are) a disorganized mess…and he may have rewritten some of them to sound better:

“I found a passage on my laptop that I'd transcribed from the original [at Harvard University]— about Cheever's meeting with Sophia Loren in the summer of 1967—and compared it with the Brandeis version.* Sure enough, they were different! "She seems sincere, magnanimous, lucky and matter of fact," Cheever had (sloppily) typed in the original, followed by a bit of dialogue between the two. "She seems sincere, magnanimous, lucky and intelligent," reads the (immaculate) Brandeis version, and the subsequent dialogue has been deleted. Was it possible that Cheever had not only retyped but substantially rewritten many journal pages for the sake of a little academic posterity?”

I didn’t know that the published edition (edited by Robert Gottlieb and published in 1991) is only about 5 percent of what exists.

And Bailey has his own tale of woe about dealing with these tricky documents.

*31 pages that Cheever donated to the Brandeis library in the mid-1960s

My Head Hurts: Write About It

Given my issues with headaches, this call for submissions caught my eye:

Whether you've never written a word in your life or write every day, we invite you to enter our Putting Our Heads Together Poetry Contest 2009.

Contest Rules
Entry form online at http://www.healthcentral.com/migraine/c/create/poetry/

Subject must be headache or Migraine related, but may be metaphoric or abstract.

Form: Rhymed, free-verse, any form of poetry, but not prose.

Poetry must be original and written by you. Submission of poetry written by someone else will result in disqualification.

All poems must be unpublished work, never before published anywhere.

Length: Maximum of 60 lines, no more than 80 characters per line (including spaces and punctuation).

Number of entries: Please limit entries to no more than three poems per person.

Age: Poems written by persons under 18 years of age must be submitted by a parent or legal guardian."Family-friendly" language required. No profanity or other potentially offensive language

Deadline: Friday, April 17, 2009. Submissions received after this date will be deleted.

Decisions of the judges are final.

You do not need to live in the U.S. to enter, but all poems must be written in English.

Winners will be announced and the poetry published on MyMigraineConnection on Monday April 27th, in observance20of National Poetry Month.

More information: http://www.healthcentral.com/migraine/poetry-contest.html

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Guest in Progress: Virginia Pye

I met Virginia (Ginny) Pye during one of my previous residencies at VCCA. She was only staying for a week, and she was revising a novel manuscript. We quickly hit it off, swapping novel horror stories and pertinent gossip over dinner. But after every meal, she disappeared back to her studio…back to work. I had thought I was a hard worker, but she put me to shame. And, yes, on her last day, she reported that she had finished going through her book. Yay!

But as you’ll see in the following piece, “finishing” a book doesn’t always mean it’s “done.”

So, take heart, revisers and re-revisers and re-re-revisers. The path to the last page is not always easy, but you can be confident that your book will be better for the journey.

***

Some authors write a book a year. They know the beginning, middle and end before they put their fingers to the keyboard. Perhaps they improvise along the way, but essentially they know where they are headed from the start. I envy them.

Barnes and Noble’s shelves are stocked with how-to books on plotting the novel. Writers can follow clear steps to achieve results: simply develop the hook, create some conflict, throw in a sub-plot, reach a climax, then slide into a denouement. It should be as easy as cutting out a dress pattern or following a recipe.

So why has it just taken me more than four years to finish my novel, Sleepwalking to China?

For me, writing a novel is like running a marathon in a dream. The landscape keeps shifting. I’m continually cresting the next hill and looking out over a changed horizon. The ground below my sneakers sometimes turns to quick sand and at other times propels me forward to fly.

It took me about a year and a half to write the first two drafts of Sleepwalking. I was certain I had the general shape of the story and now just needed to polish it. Then I showed the manuscript to some people, including my agent, who said it was far from done. I stepped back for a month and when I reread the book, I saw my readers had been kind. That first version wasn’t at all what I had in my head. The characters didn’t have enough depth. They didn’t make the reader, or even me, laugh when they mumbled out of the corners of their mouths. When they died, no one cried. I knew who they were and how wonderful they were meant to be, but no one else did. Not yet, anyway.

Part of the problem was the order in which I was telling the story. Sleepwalking is a tale of three generations of an American family in China, Vietnam and Boston spanning the twentieth century. When I told it chronologically, the reader became acquainted first with the grandparents who were missionaries in northwestern China at the start of the century. By page 100, we finally get to know the father and it isn’t until about page 150 we encounter the third generation—a brother and sister who were the ones I cared about most of all. My poor reader had to slog through a lot of storytelling just to get to the people I wanted them to fall in love with.

At that point, I enlisted Leslie’s help, received some valuable editorial insights from her and went back in and began restructuring the manuscript. I thought about the many scenes I had now written and those I still had blooming in my head. Which of them would make a great opening? Should I start with the grandfather out in a Mongolian desert hamlet in 1907? Or begin with the daughter at the student take-over of Harvard in 1969? Or throw the reader in with the son and the other Marines at the Fall of Saigon? I knew my story was going to travel all over the place—across continents and through the twentieth century—but where should it start?

And what about the overall shape? I tried any number of things, including braiding the story. I wove the tales of the three generations, each conveyed in the voice of that time period’s principle character. I tried having the son tell the story, only then I realized on an umpteenth draft that he had to die three quarters of the way through the book! That led me to wonder if I should have the grandmother look back on everything and tell it all from the grave. Anything seemed possible, which made me both excited and miserable.

With each attempt at restructuring—some only brief experiments of twenty or so pages and others sketched out into full blown drafts—I expanded my plot. The story revealed itself to me. I made connections between crucial details across decades. And, finally, the principle character stepped forward into the light.

Sleepwalking to China is Penelope Carson’s story—Penny. She is the daughter of Charles Carson, dean of students at Harvard who was raised in China as the son of missionaries. Despite the fact that her father and grandfather both seem to have the more interesting tales to tell, it was her story I was most interested in.

I was relieved and yet disappointed. My previous novels had female protagonists. This book was meant to be about men. I had scenes set in wartime Vietnam; others showed a missionary minister alone on a mule in Mongolia; I even have a beheading! But there was no denying it: Penny was the one who needed to make sense of her family’s past. She was the one most changed and most brought to life by knowing their tale.

Once I figured that out, you’d have thought the writing would have just zipped along. It did, in a way, but the process still took me another two years. The story needed to be told and retold. The language refined and improved. The plot tightened and connections made clearer between scenes and characters. I did all this with the brilliant help of several friends, including novelist Susann Cokal, who read a full draft over one academic year and steered me right when I started to go off course.

During all those years of working on the manuscript, I did my best to hold my head high when people asked if I was still working on that same China book. I had to be patient with myself and the process. The hype and anxiety these days about the publishing industry can easily cause a writer to put their toe into that fast-moving stream too early. We’re told we need to start our web pages and write our blogs and build our platform. We’re supposed to start promoting our book before we’ve even written the first chapter. The world can be way too much with us as we write.

When I started Sleepwalking, I had an agent, but by the time I finished, I didn’t. That was discouraging, but I had to press on. Actually, not having an agent was all the more reason to fall in love with the process of writing. The only ones waiting to read my chapters were my writing buddies, so I might as well settle in and take some risks and do my best to make it good.

I decided not to research possible new agents until I knew I was coming down the home stretch. Meanwhile, I had been going to conferences—the AWP and James River Writers’ Conference here in Richmond, which, as co-chair of the organization I help run each year. I gathered agent’s and editor’s business cards and talked up my novel whenever I could. I knew I’d use the connections I made when the manuscript was really ready. But, in general, I tried to not to get too distracted by the publishing side of writing.

And I’m glad, because it took all my brain power, all my spare and quiet time, to just wrestle this story onto the page. I don’t write brilliant first drafts, or even tenth drafts. I don’t write a novel a year. I don’t even really know how I did this one, but, after thirteen drafts, I finally feel it’s done. I am reminded now that it takes lots of time and infinite patience to write a novel.

So, if that’s your method, too, then I’m in good company. Let’s leave the how-to books on the shelves and delve into the strange dream marathon of novel-writing. While I’m glad to be finally waking from it, I can also say it’s been a wonderful and challenging course to traverse. I wouldn’t have taken a shortcut for anything. ~~Virginia Pye

About: Virginia Pye has published stories in literary journals, including The North American Review and failbetter, and was recently a finalist in several Glimmer Train contests. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College where she studied with Allan Gurganus. At Wesleyan University, Annie Dillard was her first mentor. Virginia taught writing at New York University and the University of Pennsylvania and has received fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. In Richmond, Virginia, she is Co-Chair of James River Writers, a literary non-profit which hosts an annual writer’s conference in addition to other programs and events that support aspiring writers and lovers of literature. Her new novel, Sleepwalking to China, tells the story of three generations of an American family in and their ties to China and Vietnam. You can read one of Ginny's published short stories here.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

And So It Begins...

…National Poetry Month, of course. Being such an open-hearted person, I will rise above my bitterness that National Fiction Month doesn’t exist and join in the deserved celebration of poetry.

Poet/editor Kim Roberts announces that the new edition of Beltway is up and ready “with a new issue devoted to authors who have recently published their first, full-length, single-author books." Five authors are featured, all with notable books:

A.B. SPELLMAN, author of Things I Must Have Known,
SANDRA BEASLEY, author of Theories of Falling,
KATHI MORRISON-TAYLOR, author of By the Nest,
BRANDEL FRANCE DE BRAVO, author of Provenance, and
GREGG SHAPIRO, author of Protection.

Additionally, "We offer a generous sampling of each book, with bios on each author, and links to their presses. In the Introduction, we list other recommended first books by DC authors as well.”

In a wealth of riches, I was especially taken with Sandra Beasley’s poem “Theories of Falling” and Brandel France de Bravo’s “Wedlock.”

Some enticing excerpts:

After years of research,

I can only guarantee that if you go over Niagara in a kayak, you will die.
A ball of chicken wire and quilts? You might make it.
Oak barrel? You'll walk away,
though just to die in a poor house ten years later.

~"Theories of Falling” by Sandra Beasley

***
Bedrock isn't just a town that Fred and Wilma,
Barney and Betty and all the other prehistoric couples
in leopard skin togas call home; it's what marriage
is supposed to be (honey, you're my rock),
but I say less steadiness and more animation,…

~"Wedlock” by Brandel France de Bravo

You can find Beltway here.

Creative Nonfiction Reveals Edits on Published Pieces

Where to begin? If you’ve ever had the sneaking suspicion that your story, essay, novel, etc. isn’t really beginning where it should, you’re not alone.

Creative Nonfiction magazine pulls back the curtain on the editing process on their website in the “First Lede, Real Lead” feature. Here, they show several essays that the editors trimmed, to get to the “real beginning”:

“During the editing process for this issue, with the permission of the writers, we eliminated the original beginnings of three essays and started them a few paragraphs or pages later. Our goal was to make the beginnings more immediate, to eliminate some writerly throat-clearing, to help plunge readers into the heart of the story--the action, the theme, the substance--from the very beginning.”

Instructive and interesting, especially to read how the authors and readers respond to the suggested edits. Go here, and scroll down to click on the essays marked “First Lede, Real Lead.”

Mark Your Calendar: C.M. Mayo's Novel Debuts

Dear friend C.M. (Catherine) Mayo’s first novel, THE LAST PRINCE OF THE MEXICAN EMPIRE, will be published by Unbridled Books this May. Read all about it here: http://www.cmmayo.com/last-prince-of-the-mexican-empire.html

And mark your calendar for these special readings:

May 12, 2009
Washington DC Reading & Booksigning @ 7 pm
The Mexican Cultural Institute
2829 16th St NW, Washington DC
tel. 202-728-1628
icmdc@instituteofmexicodc.org

On-street parking and easy walking distance from Columbia Metro Station (click here for map)C.M. Mayo reading and signing the novel The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire
Free, wine reception. To be presented by Professor John Tutino, Georgetown University Dept of HistoryPolitics & Prose to handle book sales.


May 17, 2009
Bethesda MD
Reading & Book Signing
The Writers Center
C.M. Mayo reading and signing the novel The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire (With translator and poet Yvette Neisser Moreno, reading from her translation of poet Luis Alberto Ambroggio's Difficult Beauty.)

The Writers Center is located at 4508 Walsh Street, about 1/2 block off Wisconsin Ave. and there is parking directly across the street. Click here for directions.

Work-in-Progress

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