Thursday, January 28, 2010

Guest in Progress: Richard Peabody's Reading List of Experimental Fiction

Last week's post about reading lists brought Richard Peabody to my email door.

The chances are that if you’re a writer living in the DC area, you already know Richard—or will meet him soon!—because he’s such an essential part of the DC literary scene that it’s impossible not to cross paths with him either personally or in cyberspace. (He has nearly 2000 Facebook friends.) Founder of the wonderful and long-lived journal Gargoyle and the editor of many fine anthologies (see below for details), he’s also a wonderful writer and a gifted teacher. He’s smart and funny and generous and deeply passionate about books.

Anyway…his email alluded to the comment in my post about “books every writer simply should read” and said that for fun, he was sending me his list of books that would fall into that category. Great, I thought, maybe I can post it on my blog, and I opened the attachment.

The list was 25 pages long.

Truly, this was one of the most amazing lists I’ve ever seen, but it was too long to post (though I'm most definitely hanging onto this amazing resource!).

So my self-interest started churning: My knowledge of experimental literature is lacking, and maybe I could get him to cull out a few titles that I might add to my 2010 reading list (which, at the moment, is composed of Moby-Dick). Richard knows the field from top to bottom, past and present, and he teaches a very popular workshop in experimental fiction at Johns Hopkins. So I invited him to come up with the 12-15 titles he would recommend to someone like me, who wants to learn more about what’s being done out there. Here’s what he came up with, another equally amazing and wonderfully annotated list:

I (Heart) Laurence Sterne
By Richard Peabody

My job is to seduce you to the dark side of fiction writing, where as the bumper stickers say, “We have Cookies.” A mischievous mysterious place otherwise known as avant-garde, Post modern, meta fiction, magical realism, PoMo, surreal, whacked out, or the all encompassing moniker “that weird shit.”

Leslie was generous with her Blog but keeping this to 15 or so titles is nearly impossible for a list-maker like me. So I’m cheating by adding the required texts for my Experimental Writing Workshop at Johns Hopkins from this past fall:

J. Austen & S. Grahame Smith –Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

P. Geyh, F.G. Leebron & A. Levy –Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology

Cris Mazza & J. DeShell – Chick-Lit: PostFeminist Fiction

Cris Mazza, J. DeShell & E. Sheffield—Chick-Lit #2: No Chick Vics

Rusty Morrison & Ken Keegan—ParaSpheres 1: Extending Beyond the Spheres of
Literary and Genre Fiction.
(ParaSpheres #2 is due out any second)

David Young & K. Hollaman—Magical Realist Fiction

The Young gives you a decent historical grounding in both the Euro and Latin American traditions. The Norton gives you a broad survey of the US scene since the 60s with William S. Burroughs, Kathy Acker and the SciFi of Samuel Delaney, Ursula LeGuin and Octavia Butler, while Chick-Lit and ParaSpheres bring you up to speed to the right now. And love it or hate it, what S. Grahame Smith did to poor Jane Austen is legal (you, too, can write though any work in the public domain, as the LANGUAGE poets have been doing for eons) and has created an odd boom of off-the-wall works as writers scramble to add zombies to Huckleberry Finn, War of the Worlds, The Wizard of Oz, and so on. Smith’s work in progress is Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.

I would also add an interesting book on how to write experimental fiction. Lance Olsen—Rebel Yell: A Short Guide to Fiction Writing. Part interviews, part assignments with examples. Olsen is a master writer and thinker.

And for those with an interest in the history of women writing extreme fiction do find a copy of E.G. Frideman & M. Fuchs –Breaking the Sequence—Women’s Experimental Fiction, which gives an overview on the women who were pioneers including Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein.

My picks for a quick dip into the Experimental oceans in the Aughts race beyond the snippets by the masters in the above anthologies and would be the following:

Flann O’Brien – At Swim-Two-Birds
Who can resists a novel about a man writing a novel about a man writing a novel whose characters come alive when he sleeps and rewrite everything?

Jeanette Winterson—The Passion
One of Winterson’s irresistible books from early on in what has become a splendid career. She’s a true original. Part history, part collage, and always fun. And the musical language!

Kurt Vonnegut—Breakfast of Champions
Everybody has their own faves. When the author enters a scene in this book and breaks the fourth wall to talk directly to the reader my young mind was blown.

Donald Barthelme –Sixty Stories

Barthelme was one of the reasons people read The New Yorker in the 60’s. His stories exist sans arc. They’re flat from beginning to end and endlessly fascinating. Like Charles Addams on acid.

Juan Rios – Loves That Bind
A Spanish writer who is as inventive as he is talented. Twenty-six letters to 26 women. Each is a literary character from another author’s work. Each chapter in the style of the existing novel. D is Daisy. L is Lolita. Z is Zazie. Can you figure them all out?

David Mitchell – Cloud Atlas
Mitchell wiped out everybody with this one. A frolic through time and space and identity. Critics compare him to Philip K. Dick, Umberto Eco, and Haruki Murakami. Michael Chabon calls it, “The novel as series of nested dolls or Chinese boxes, a puzzle-book. . . .”

Octavia Butler—Bloodchild and Other Stories
Buy it for the title story alone. Butler always investigated race and sexuality and the idea of male pregnancy at the whim of another species is way out.

Mark Z. Danielewski--House of Leaves
A self-published ghost story about a haunted house with all sorts of odd typography, different colors of ink, drawings, that gathered such a following that a major house picked it up and reproduced it. Not for the faint of heart.

Eurydice – f/32
What happens when a woman is disassociated from her vagina, which runs off on its own adventures?

Kelly Link –Pretty Monsters
Absolutely one of the cleverest writers out there right now. She runs her own litmag and small press (with her husband) and writes stories that you will never forget. She’s like the second coming of Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, and all of those other Twilight Zone staffers, with a big dose of James Tiptree thrown in for spice.

Jasper Fforde—The Eyre Affair
Sort of Monty Python meets Douglas Adams meets LitCrit 101. Thursday Next, a Special Operative in literary detection, has to enter into the text of Bronte’s novel to find the absent Jane Eyre. Loads of fun. And there are sequels.

Karen Elizabeth Gordon—Paris out of hand (a wayward guide)
A completely invented guidebook to Paris, which is still somehow an emotionally connected tribute to all things Parisian.

Katherine Dunn—Geek Love
There are always rumors that this will be a movie someday but I have no idea how anybody could film it. Terry Gilliam? Maybe? I wish Dunn would write another novel but how to top this? The ultimate weird circus.

Ted Mooney—Easy Travel to Other Planets
Infamous for a scene in which a woman makes it with a porpoise but so much more than that. An alternate earth where things are coming apart.

Gilbert Sorrentino—Mulligan’s Stew
A tribute to all things James Joyce which begins with Sorrentino’s rejection letters from editors and publishers for the novel. Characters are grabbed from Dashiell Hammett and Joyce and swirled together into a brand new confection.

Hope these tickle your fancy.

But what about Borges, Calvino, Cortrazar, Garcia-Marquez, Grass, Pynchon, Keri Hulme, Rushdie? And how to resist Tibor Fischer’s The Collector Collector, told from the POV of a 5,000-year-old Sumerian pot?

Ahh. So many books out there. The above is tonight’s list. Try me tomorrow and it’ll be something completely different. ~~Richard Peabody

About: Richard Peabody wears many literary hats. He is editor of Gargoyle Magazine (founded in 1976), has published a novella, two books of short stories, six books of poems, plus an e-book, and edited or co-edited eighteen anthologies including: Mondo Barbie, Mondo Elvis, Mondo Marilyn, Mondo James Dean, Coming to Terms: A Literary Response to Abortion, Conversations with Gore Vidal, A Different Beat: Writings by Women of the Beat Generation, Grace and Gravity: Fiction by Washington Area Women, Alice Redux: New Stories of Alice, Lewis, and Wonderland, Sex & Chocolate: Tasty Morsels for Mind and Body, Kiss the Sky: Fiction and Poetry Starring Jimi Hendrix and Gravity Dancers: Even More Fiction by Washington Area Women. Peabody teaches fiction writing for the Johns Hopkins Advanced Studies Program. He lives in Arlington, Virginia. You can find out more at and

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

What the iPad (Might) Mean

From BoldType, a concise and helpful take on Apple’s new iPad.

Raymond Carver: "A Persistent and Steady Glow"

From The Paris Review Interviews, Volume III—an interview with Raymond Carver in 1983.

Interviewer: How do you hope your stories will affect people? Do you think your writing will change anybody?

Carver: … Good fiction is partly a bringing of the news from one world to another. That end is good in and of itself, I think. But changing things through fiction, changing somebody’s political affiliation or the political system itself, or saving the whales or the redwood trees, no. Not if these are the kinds of changes you mean. And I don’t think it should have to do any of these things, either. It doesn’t have to do anything. It just has to be there for the fierce pleasure we take in doing it, and the different kind of pleasure that’s taken in reading something that’s durable and made to last, as well as beautiful in and of itself. Something that throws off these sparks—a persistent and steady glow, however dim.

Apply for the Norman Mailer Writers Colony

I really, really, REALLY want to go here:

The Norman Mailer Writers Colony is pleased to announce its call for applications for the Second Annual Norman Mailer Writers Colony Fellowships at Provincetown, MA.

The Mailer Fellows have been created to honor Norman Mailer’s contributions to American culture and letters and to nurture future generations of writers. In 2009 seven Fellows spent four weeks in Provincetown, Massachusetts where they wrote, discussed their work, and were visited by writers such as Don DeLillo; editors and writers from leading publications such as the New York Review of Books and Vanity Fair. In 2010 Gay Talese will visit the colony as well as other leading writers to be named.

Fiction and non-fiction writers can apply for a 28-day residency in Provincetown, Massachusetts, near Mailer’s home beginning July 5, 2010. Once again, seven Fellows will be selected. In addition, as many as 66 applicants will be offered scholarships to one week writing workshops in Provincetown during May, June, August and September, 2010.

Information about the Fellowships, including an application, can be found at

Applications must be received by March 13, 2009.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Want a Free Box of Literary Journals?

I accumulate a number of literary journals through subscriptions and purchases and freebies, and after I’m done with them I try to find ways to pass them along, usually involved with a class I’m teaching. But my class this spring doesn’t lend itself to my usual lit journal project, and the stack is teetering and spilling over….

So, here’s my thought: I will pack as many of them as I can into one of those set-price boxes at the post office and mail it to one random reader selected from all who enter. If you’re interested, email me your name/address (U.S. only; sorry!) with the subject line BOX OF JOURNALS.

I’m not sure how many copies I can fit into one box, but I’ll have to take a moment and brag that I do an absolutely amazing job of packing a car for a road trip, so I bet it will be more than you expect. Journals include Shenandoah, Tin House, Gettysburg Review, Review, One Story, and I won’t send anything older than 2(ish) years.

Deadline to enter this exciting competition is Friday, January 29, 6 PM EST!

Legalese: Your entry email will be promptly deleted after this contest ends, and your name/info will not be added to any lists.

Workshop Your Whole Novel Ms.

Richard Peabody is a legendary DC teacher…here’s your chance to workshop your entire novel with him and a small class of peers:

Critique Your Complete Novel--
Not Just a Couple of Chapters
Peabody’s Novel Class

Limited to 5 students. We meet every two weeks on Wednesday day nights 7:30 until 10pm at my house in Arlington, Virginia. Four to five blocks from Virginia Square Metro station.

1. February 1
2. February 17
3. March 3
4. March 17
5. March 31
[afraid we have to skip 3 weeks so longest novel will be last]
6. April 28
7. May 5

Cost is $500 to be paid before the first night. Due to people dropping the class at the last minute and forcing me to cancel the entire session I now require that $125 of this fee be non-refundable and paid before the class begins.

Every participant turns in their complete novel the first night along with 5 copies for everybody else and me. That way you get handwritten notes on everything from everybody. And you should feel free to recommend cuts, improvements, make suggestions, mark the manuscripts up at will. That's what this class is all about. By meeting every two weeks each participant should have plenty of time to complete their critiques. If you can't attend every meeting (which I demand save for unforeseeable illness or death in the family as it's a question of fairness and honor) please don't bother signing up.

Why do I teach this class? Because you can go to your favorite bookshop and lift any number of contemporary novels off the shelf and read a few chapters only to discover that they fall apart at chapter four. Why? I’ve found that most MFA programs only critique the first three chapters of your manuscript. Plus, I’ve learned from the hands-on experience of teaching this course that a complete reading and critique is absolutely the best way (dare I say only way) to go.

What’s the advantage of a small class like this one? There’s nothing quite like having five people discuss your characters as though they were living people for 2 ½ hours. What sorts of novels are eligible? Generally I handle serious literary fiction (both realism and experimental works), but the class has included YA, Sci-Fi, Mystery, Horror, Thriller, and Romance novels.

If you are interested do please email me a chapter and a synopsis. I'm only considering completed novels in the 250-350 dbl. spaced page range. (That’s one-sided, double spaced, 12pt. in Courier font.) Anything longer than that is pretty much wishful thinking right now due to grim market economics and politics. Most first novels are 300 dbl. spaced pages which equals 200pp. in book form. Simply a fact of the biz. Second novels are frequently a different story.

Alumni from Peabody’s 23 years of university, Writer’s Center, and private classes with filmed screenplays, books in print (or forthcoming) include: Mark Baechtel, Doreen Baingana, Toby Barlow, Maggie Bartley, Jodi Bloom, Sean Brijbasi, Peter Brown, Robert Cullen, Priscilla Cummings, Katharine Davis, Lucinda Ebersole, Cara Haycak, Dave Housley, Alma Katsu, Catherine Kimrey, Adam Kulakow, Nathan Leslie, Eric Lotke, Redge Mahaffey, Charlotte Manning, Meena Nayak, Matthew Olshan, William Orem, Mary Overton, Carolyn Parkhurst, Sally Pfoutz, Nani Power, Lisa Schamess, Brenda Seabrooke, Julia Slavin, and Yolanda Young.

More details: (703) 525-9296 or cell (703) 380-4893

Richard Peabody wears many literary hats. He is editor of Gargoyle Magazine (founded in 1976), has published a novella, two books of short stories, six books of poems, plus an e-book, and edited or co-edited eighteen anthologies including: Mondo Barbie, Mondo Elvis, Mondo Marilyn, Mondo James Dean, Coming to Terms: A Literary Response to Abortion, Conversations with Gore Vidal, A Different Beat: Writings by Women of the Beat Generation, Grace and Gravity: Fiction by Washington Area Women, Alice Redux: New Stories of Alice, Lewis, and Wonderland, Sex & Chocolate: Tasty Morsels for Mind and Body, Kiss the Sky: Fiction and Poetry Starring Jimi Hendrix and Gravity Dancers: Even More Fiction by Washington Area Women. Peabody teaches fiction writing for the Johns Hopkins Advanced Studies Program. He lives in Arlington, Virginia. You can find out more at and

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Funny Side of the Writing Life

Need a laugh? Here’s a daily writing-related comic that gets all the details right:

Study with Richard McCann at Atlantic Center for the Arts

Here’s your chance to work with Richard McCann (bio below), a wonderful and generous teacher, when he’s the artist-in-residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. He will be in residency from May 17 through June 6, and his residency statement sounds enticing:

"I'd like to work with prose writers-whether of fiction, nonfiction, or some combination of the two-whose works derive at least in part from autobiographical sources, so that we can explore some of our common concerns, such as what it means to work from memory and what we need to do as writers in order to transform the raw material of life into stories that have the power to move others. It's my hope that in our three weeks together--bivouacked, as it were--we'll form an attentive and generous critical community, so that we can encourage one another to take the sorts of risks that allow us to grow as writers. In the mornings, we'll write a lot; for two hours each afternoon, we'll come together for workshop sessions, individual conferences, and writing exercises that are designed to carry us to places that we hadn't necessarily thought to go. Whether working in fiction or nonfiction, you should bring with you either a work-in-progress or the desire to begin something new."

More details about the Atlantic Center:

Since 1982, Atlantic Center's residency program has provided artists from all artistic disciplines with spaces to live, work, and collaborate during three-week residencies. Located just four miles from the east coast beaches of central Florida, the pine and palmetto wooded environment contains award-winning studios that include a resource library, painting, sculpture, music, dance and writers' studios, a black box theater, and digital computer lab. Each residency session includes three master artists of different disciplines. The master artists each personally select a group of associates - talented, emerging and midcareer artists - through an application process administered by ACA. During the residency, artists participate in informal sessions with their group, collaborate on projects, and work independently. The relaxed atmosphere and unstructured program provide considerable time for artistic regeneration and creation. Atlantic Center for the Arts provides housing (private room/bath with work desk), weekday meals (provided by ACA chef) and 24-hour access to shared studio space. Financial Aid is available to qualified applicants.

For more information on how to apply, go here or email or telephone ACA at (386) 427-6975 or (800) 393-6975 (domestic US only).

And you’ll have to hurry: the application postmark deadline is February 5, 2010.

More about Richard McCann: Richard McCann is the author of Mother of Sorrows, a work of fiction, and Ghost Letters, a collection of poems (1994 Beatrice Hawley Award, 1933 Capricorn Poetry Award). He is also the editor (with Michael Klein) of Things Shaped in Passing: More 'Poets for Life' Writing from the AIDS Pandemic. His fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in such magazines as The Atlantic, Ms., Esquire, Ploughshares, Tin House, and the Washington Post Magazine, and in numerous anthologies, including The O. Henry Prize Stories 2007 and Best American Essays 2000. He is currently working on a memoir, The Resurrectionist, which explores the experience and meanings of illness and mortality through a narrative exploration of his experience as a liver transplant recipient.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Work in Progress: Reading Lists

I’m going to be teaching a literature class at Johns Hopkins this semester, so I’ve had the pleasure of putting together what I think is an excellent reading list. The class is called "Voice in Modern Fiction," and it’s as much of a writing class as a literature class, as the assignments are creative responses rather than papers.

All the books are supposed to have been published (roughly) within the last thirty years, so that was one parameter. Of course I wanted to include books that I believe in, even if they may be flawed (imagine having to come up with a list of “perfect” books!). And of course I wanted to offer a breadth and depth to the authors, even in such a small sample (5-10 total were expected for the course).

And then there was the idea of voice: how to show what “voice” is when that single word can be used to illustrate the attraction of Henry James and Ernest Hemingway, united in that single word just as they’re separated by about everything else possible? What books can illustrate the various components of “voice”?

Here’s what I came up with:

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles
Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Best American Short Stories 2009, edited by Alice Sebold: selected stories

I’ve also recently spent some time working with the Converse College Low-Residency MFA program students, helping them put together their reading lists for the semester. Again, that’s a useful exercise for me and for them: what books should they read that will be similar to the work they want to achieve? What books are so different that they will offer a stretch, a possibly jarring but eye-opening experience? What books simply should be read because every writer should read that book (in my opinion)?

When I started researching my historical novel, I came up with a list of books to read, including Sister Carrie, The Jungle, Devil in the White City, and the speeches of Frederick Jackson Turner ("The Frontier in American History"). It was helpful to have that guidance and to feel that though I wasn’t actually writing at that time, I was still “accomplishing” something. (Is anything more delightful than checking something off a list?)

Though my reading for this semester is mostly outlined above—the joy of assigning a reading list is getting to revisit all those books!—I do think that before summer rolls around, I need my very own reading list. First book on it: Moby-Dick, which I have shamefully missed for all these years, even though it seems to me that every writer should read it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Great Job at a Fabulous Magazine in a Wonderful City!

It’s no secret that I absolutely love The Sun magazine, so I’m happy to spread the word about this job:

"We need a Digital-Media Director at The Sun, a nonprofit, ad-free magazine in its thirty-sixth year of publication. Duties include directing The Sun’s digital-media efforts; writing and editing online copy; recommending and producing digital formats for magazine and book content; producing e-mail ad campaigns; and overseeing The Sun’s computer network. The job requires editorial and/or project-management experience (preferably in an online environment), a thorough understanding of social media, and HTML skills. This is a full-time position in our editorial office in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. No phone calls, e-mails, faxes, or surprise visits, please."

More details here.

Mark Your Calendar: Book Review Panel

The DC Chapter of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) is hosting this great sounding panel:


Panelists include Washington Post Book World Editor RACHEL HARTIGAN SHEAand Deputy Editor RON CHARLES.

Tuesday, Feb 2nd
6:30 to 9pm
Charles Sumner School Museum & Archives
17th & M St., NW
Washington DC

More details are here. This panel is the same night that my class at Johns Hopkins meets (grrr…), so if you attend and wish to write up a report for this blog, please let me know!

Upcoming Deadline #1: Split This Rock Poetry Festival

Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, March 10 through March 13, 2010, will feature readings, workshops, panel discussions, youth programming, film, parties, activism -- opportunities to speak out for social justice, imagine a way forward, and celebrate the many ways that poetry can act as an agent for social change.

· Registration fees increase after February 10, 2010. Register today! Only $75; $40 for students.

· Scholarships available. Scholarship Guidelines are online. Postmark deadline: February 20.
Lodging in DC is available at a reduced rate:

We are pleased to announce the Beacon Hotel as the "official" hotel for Split This Rock Poetry Festival in 2010. Beacon's rates are modest compared to area hotels.

Reserve a room online or call 800-821-4367 (mention Split This Rock for our reduced rate)

For every reservation that mentions Split This Rock, Beacon will donate 5% of the room rate to Split This Rock.

Reservations at this rate are on a first-come, first-served basis through January 25, 2010. The Wednesday and Thursday rate is $209/night; Friday and Saturday rate is $129/night; and Sunday's rate is $189.

Upcoming Deadline #2: Converse College

The Converse College Low-Residency MFA Program will be accepting applications for the Summer/Fall semester from potential fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction students until February 15, 2010.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Junot Diaz: No Sudden Miracles

This article by Junot Diaz is amazing. You must read it, especially if you’ve ever gone through periods of doubt about your writing (isn’t that all of us?). At one point, he seriously planned to give up writing. !!


“One night in August, unable to sleep, sickened that I was giving up, but even more frightened by the thought of having to return to the writing, I dug out the manuscript. I figured if I could find one good thing in the pages I would go back to it. Just one good thing. Like flipping a coin, I'd let the pages decide. Spent the whole night reading everything I had written, and guess what? It was still terrible. In fact with the new distance the lameness was even worse than I'd thought. That's when I should have put everything in the box. When I should have turned my back and trudged into my new life. I didn't have the heart to go on. But I guess I did. While my fiancée slept, I separated the 75 pages that were worthy from the mountain of loss, sat at my desk, and despite every part of me shrieking no no no no, I jumped back down the rabbit hole again. There were no sudden miracles. It took two more years of heartbreak, of being utterly, dismayingly lost before the novel I had dreamed about for all those years finally started revealing itself. And another three years after that before I could look up from my desk and say the word I'd wanted to say for more than a decade: done.”

The book that came from all this struggle is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which is a vast, stunning, inventive book…and the 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction.

Read the whole article here. Really. You absolutely can’t skip this one.

(Here’s my report on seeing Junot Diaz give a reading from this book.)

Tom Buchanan in a Tutu?

Yes…Steve and are just got tickets to the ballet version of The Great Gatsby, playing at the Kennedy Center in late February.

Here’s the description of the program:

Return to the splendor of the Jazz Age and the frivolity of the Roaring Twenties as Septime Webre re-imagines F. Scott Fitzgerald's passionate, thought-provoking, and complex The Great Gatsby. Set to a score composed by musicologist and early 20th century music expert Billy Novick, the artists of The Washington Ballet bring to life this rich allegory of obsession, wealth, and influence.

And here’s ticket information. Personally, I’m especially looking forward to seeing the party scene in dance!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Registration for Writers at the Beach Now Open

Time to register for the fabulous Writers at the Beach conference. Alas, I won’t be there this year, but here’s just a short list of some of the more than 3 dozen writers, editors, and agents who will be attending: Robert Bausch, Sheri Reynolds, Liam Callanan, C.M. Mayo, and Carolyn Parkhurst.

This conference is special because of its charitable connection: “we will donate 100% of our net proceeds to Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children to help defray medical costs of those being treated there for Mitochondrial disease.

Given in memory of Sam and Zachary Juhlmann [conference founding organizer Maribeth Fischer’s nephew’s] , the funds will be used to defray the numerous and often uninsured costs associated with the treatment of mitochondrial disease.”

And, did I mention that this conference takes place at the BEACH? Win-win-win…how can you go wrong?

Science Poetry...An Intriguing Combination

Neil and Zara McAlister solicit poetry of all genres for their fourth collection, "Science Poetry." Submissions close 30 June 2010:

“Our requirements for this new book are quite specific. Detailed instructions for authors can be found through the link on our poetry web site”.

[Note: Yes, they are specific, wanting “No “moon – June” cliches. No sloppy, half-baked scansion or lazy, slant rhymes.”]


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Work in Progress: More on Writing Groups

My recent reposting of my comments about critiques from workshops and/or writing groups brought some questions from readers, which can be boiled down into these basic concerns:

--Craft issues

--Personality issues

I’ll take a stab at tackling these broad issues and then (of course!) offer some advice.

With regard to craft issues, it seems imperative to me that members of the group have a general sense of the basic tenets of good writing, whether that be good genre writing or good literary writing. There’s a potential problem right there: if what you want to write is a good genre romance novel, and the other people in your group are more interested in writing the next Pulitzer Prize winner, they may not be as helpful to your particular project as you would like. I don’t believe that everyone in a group must have the same goals, but it certainly is helpful—and at the least, everyone should have an understanding of what other writers are working for.

I sometimes see this play out in the graduate workshops where I teach: someone will show up with an idea for a science fiction novel, say. I have no problem with that, but honestly, I don’t know much about the field, so I’m not as helpful as I might like to be. Is this idea fresh…or has it been done a zillion times already? How do other sci-fi writers solve that problem of plunging into a world that’s so different than ours? Are vampires allowed in outer space?

On the other hand, I DO know about good writing and telling stories, so I know that I can help lead the way to more textured scenes and deeper characterizations; I can point out clichés and problems with point of view. And, also on that hand, is the fact that I’m always mindful that I’m teaching in a graduate writing program; it does seem that the goal there is to learn to write in a literary, artful way, so that’s what I stress. I believe that good writing will enhance a genre novel—while I love Harry Potter, fixing those clunky sentences would have improved the books without scaring people away from that wonderfully imagined world.

The equation feels more challenging when flipped: the lone literary writer in a room full of genre writers. Believe me, I’m not saying that it’s easy to write a genre book—I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do it—but that reading a literary work and offering suggestions take a certain base of knowledge (i.e. an understanding of point of view, deep thinking to see through to thematic concerns). Also believe me when I say that obviously there are writers who are interested in writing genre fiction who are also excellent critics, editors, and readers.

BUT—if you’re working on a more literary project, and you sense that the members of your group are not offering comments that show a depth of understanding of the goals of your work*…well, no amount of “I really like it” is going to advance your writing. A good critique should open your eyes, challenge you, and make you excited for your revision.

In a writing workshop, it’s the teacher’s job to draw forward more useful comments from inexperienced readers who offer “I really like the mother character.” It’s also easy to discount the few voices in a class that aren’t helpful.

However, in a writing group, that issue may become more pronounced because there’s not usually a leader who can take control in that way. And a writing group is usually composed of people that you have CHOSEN to share your work with, which leads us to the second point: personality issues.

A group (and a teacher-led workshop) should be respectful and constructive and honest. The goal should be to help the writer find his/her way through the story on the page. All should willingly enter this covenant of trust:

I trust that you will tell me the truth about my work in a respectful way.
I trust that you will be able to hear the truth about your work in a respectful way.

Defensiveness has no place in a writing group/workshop, and neither do personal attacks. In the end, the type of people in the group is as important as the writing skill. Other aspects of personality come into play—seriousness of intent, hard work, generosity of spirit, etc.—but to me, the most important has to be the ability to remain detached (at least in the public of the group) about hearing criticism and about giving criticism.

I have the same bit of advice for anyone in finding themselves in one of these common writing group problems: Get out. A bad writing group is way worse than no writing group. Leave, take a break, think about what you want/need for your work, and then, when you’re ready, try again, either by starting a new group or by finding a trusted reader or two.

Life is too short—and the work is too hard—to do otherwise.

*Here, I mean basic issues of what good writing “is,” not a room full of people who keep telling you, “I have no idea what’s going on in this book/story,” because in that case, I might think the readers are on to something and that perhaps your work lacks clarity. Or else you’re James Joyce.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Converse MFA Residency Wrap-Up: Poetry and Pork Rinds

I had a wonderful time down in South Carolina teaching in the Converse College Low-Residency MFA program. Sadly, it wasn’t much warmer down there than it was up here—it was strange to see people who had been wearing sundresses last time I saw them now swathed in parkas. Here are some of the highlights, starting with, of course, FOOD:

Unfortunately, there weren’t many food highlights in Spartanburg itself. Even the Converse cafeteria wasn’t as memorable as last year’s experience (though I did have pad Thai made to order, and there was a certain charm to “fried ravioli,” which were simply mozzarella sticks in a different shape). The schedule was more condensed than last summer, so I didn’t get the chance to head to the Beacon Drive-In for a fried pimiento cheese a’plenty.

An exception to the scarcity of great food in Spartanburg was the breakfast I got every day at the Inn on Main, the lovely 1904 B&B where the faculty got to stay (better than a dorm room, for sure!). The sideboard groaned with food every morning, and I groaned, too, as I stood up after making my way through such delights as sausage casserole, crème brulee French toast, the best quiche I’ve had, eggs benedict, bacon, muffins, fruit, and, of course, grits. (It was probably fitting that I stayed in the food-related Peach Room!)

And I found some good spots in North Carolina, on the drive back home:

--Cook Out, a small NC-based burger chain that has 40 different flavors of milkshakes and quick burgers that taste like real burgers

--Biscuitville, another NC-based chain that serves amazing biscuits with sausage, gravy, bacon, fried bologna, grits, hash browns, etc. I wasn’t very hungry (see below for reason why), so I tried only the sausage biscuit and highly recommend it.

--Watts Grocery, a fabulous restaurant that my sister selected in Durham. I had a nicely made Sazerac, shrimp and grit-cakes, fried catfish (that was perfectly fried, crisp and hot without a hint of grease). Even though I was stuffed, I couldn’t pass up the caramel cake for dessert: four layers and lots of frosting!

--I also stopped in a regular grocery store in Durham and bought some bulk breakfast sausage to take home for Steve. We haven’t had any yet, but there’s a drawing of an old-fashioned farm on the paper wrapper, so I have high hopes. I was disappointed that there were no regional potato chips in the snack food aisle, though, which was shocking. I also noted the very large mayonnaise section: Five shelves, about six feet wide…all different types of mayo and mayo-like products.

--To compensate for the lack of grocery store potato chips, I stopped at a charming truck stop just over the border in VA and bought some samples of Tom’s Chips, from GA. And I decided it was time to give pork rinds one more try, especially since there was an entire section of them here, about the size of the grocery store mayo section. I haven’t been brave enough to open the (small) bag yet, but I guess it’s a sign of quality that the “rinds” are still “attached.”

The lectures and readings I attended were top-notch, and I hesitate to name names…so I’ll give just a few:

--Albert Goldbarth gave a great talk about adding more poetry to your prose writing, using as an example a lovely essay by Bernard Cooper called “By Any Other Name.” The talk was amazing, and so was the sight of Albert—who won’t even use email!—reading a poem off the internet on someone’s phone.

--Later that day, MFA director Rick Mulkey spoke about the music of poetry and various uses of language, adding to an already exciting day of thinking about my own prose from a new perspective.

--I co-taught the fiction workshop with R.T. Smith, who also gave an excellent lecture about the importance of place in fiction.

--Tim McKee, the managing editor of The Sun magazine, visited and explained what type of writing makes the cut at The Sun. Instead of being discouraging, his list of dos and don’ts was exhilarating, reminding us all of how engaging great work truly is.

I got to catch up with the students I’d been mentoring all semester—who have made excellent progress, thanks to their hard work—and meet the new students for this semester and help them plan their reading lists, which was fun. The student readings were another highlight…some really wonderful stuff!

We had one afternoon free, and my friend and I spontaneously ended up at the mall (where I bought a Jackie Kennedy-style coat that is utterly adorable but not even remotely warm—half-price!). We then went to a middle eastern restaurant for coffee and superb baklava, and two hours later, ensconced in the big, comfy chairs, talked about going to dinner…and realized we were already at a restaurant! So we ordered some dinner food and didn’t leave for another couple of hours.

I was struck by how everyone south of Richmond was SO nice, even when I was complaining about something. Literally, only one person (okay, besides me) was short and rude, and as he drove off, we noticed his New Jersey tags. I will try to take these customs of civility into my own land and see what happens.

And I have to close by citing a few lines from the stanzas that R.T. Smith read at the conclusion of our fiction workshop, Audubon, a Vision, by Robert Penn Warren, which was the most lovely way to head back out into the world (I wish I had the full stanzas and Rod’s distinctive voice to give the full effect):

The name of the story will be Time
But you must not pronounce its name.

Tell me a story of deep delight.

(This site gives a quick gloss on the book-length poem, which I really want to read.)

I'm already looking forward to June's residency...and June's weather.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

She's Baa-aack!

I am back from South Carolina and will have a full report tomorrow.

Also, this is the 1001st post, which means--what? I guess that I always have something to say!

Oldies But Goodies, 6: Snip, Snip

While I’m teaching at Converse College in SC, I’m re-running some of my favorite posts about writing:

Posted on September 3, 2008

Work in Progress: Snip, Snip
I mentioned that “my summer vacation” has been spent waiting to hear about my novel and tackling a varied assortment of shorter-term writing projects. Within this random chaos, I’ve come up with a new writing trick that has been useful when revising and when creating new work:

When in doubt, cut.

It sounds simple—and probably it is; probably I’m a dunce for not figuring this out sooner—but it all became clear when I was revising an old story that I hadn’t looked at for at least two years. The bones were good, and I wanted to give it another try. Part of the problem with this story was that it was simply too long. These days your story has to be pretty spectacular to get a literary journal to hand over 30 pages to it…oh, and your last name also has to be Franzen or Updike or some such. So I started out knowing I wanted to cut, so that was a good point of departure.

But what to cut? Upon the first couple rereadings, everything in the story felt inter-related and impossible to cut. (A familiar feeling, perhaps?) It wasn’t as though I could trim pages and pages without affecting the storyline significantly.

Then I stopped looking at the big picture and went through paragraph by paragraph. And what I found was that on that level, it was much easier to find points where I could think, “What if this was gone?” I’d take it out and discover that I didn’t miss it and that the story didn’t really need it. (A lot of this was background and history that seemed so important until it wasn’t there.) Snip, snip—I hacked away more than five pages.

And my new mantra was surprisingly helpful when I was creating new work, too. I love revising, but first draft writing is very hard for me—there are always a thousand points where I wonder what I’m doing and find myself getting frustrated that things aren’t perfect and that I have absolutely no idea where the story is going. I’m sort of used to that—I guess it’s my “process”—though by far the hardest part is wondering “where is this story going.” When those doubts get too far, I find that where the story is going is exactly nowhere, because I’ve stopped writing, paralyzed.

But now—thanks to my new mantra—I step back and CUT. When I don’t know what happens next in the story, I simply retreat backward and take out the thing that just happened prior, whether it’s a line of dialogue or the elevator door opening. What if no one says anything? What if the elevator door DOESN’T open? It’s amazing—that simple trick usually works and shakes my mind out of paralysis and into seeing the possibility of what’s next. And there I am…moving forward again, hopefully stopping well before I get to page 30!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Oldies But Goodies, 5: Don't Listen to Them

While I’m teaching at Converse College in SC, I’m re-running some of my favorite posts about writing:

Posted on May 29, 2008

Work in Progress: "Don't Listen to Them"
Now that I’ve had some time to breathe after teaching throughout the semester while also going through my own massive collection of critiques and applying the wise suggestions and comments to my work-in-progress, I’ve had the chance to think a bit about the process of critiquing.

I’m sure this thought process is a work-in-progress in itself, so there’s a good chance that I will disavow these comments at some point, as I continue to ponder from the perspective of a critiquer and critiquee how to be most effective at guiding writers to improving their work.

First, let me note that in general, I think the standard workshop critique process works very well. (By standard, I mean: everyone reads a copy of the manuscript, writes notes on the margins, types up a 1-2 page commentary that covers what’s working in the piece and what’s not, and discusses these points in a constructive, well-managed situation; the author listens, takes notes, and at the end asks questions. Perhaps the writer goes home and downs some scotch to help take the edge off, but the class only gets the de rigueur, “Thanks. You’ve all been so helpful. I really appreciate all your comments.”)

Sometimes I’m the teacher, running the show—and one of my challenges there is reminding everyone that no single opinion is more important than the others. There’s a tendency for the voice of the “teacher” to rise above the others. While I recognize that I have more experience, we’re all a room of readers, and when your book is out there, that’s what you’re going to get: not a room of teachers (who wouldn’t agree on anything, anyway). Deep breath…art is subjective! (One of the great skills of attending a workshop is learning how to sort through the fifteen critiques to find what you need, what will actually help your book. More on that another day.)

In fact, I often find it interesting when people in the workshop disagree with my “teacherly” assessments. Actually, what challenges me the most is when I think something is great and others don’t see it the way I do; I want to take aside the writer and whisper, “Don’t listen to them.” But I’m sure that’s how they feel when I say that something isn’t working for me, and others feel they’re reading the best thing since sliced bread. What I enjoy most about the interplay in a good workshop is how generous and genuinely excited people are when we read something we like: I don’t know if I’m lucky, or if my “frosty look of death” quells the whiners, or maybe I teach at places that encourage exploration and the humility of learning, but I haven’t suffered through the workshop (or student) who complains about everything, tears stuff apart, and never has anything nice to say. (Note: If you’re ever in that situation, get out yourself out ASAP…or, if you can’t do that, really, don’t listen to them! I’ve met people who have stopped writing because of bad workshops.)

And sometimes I’m the one sitting in my fabulous writing group, listening to the critiques, taking home the stack of comments to wade through—after I’ve had my scotch to recover from the being-critiqued experience.

All this brings me to the question I’ve been pondering lately. For me, the best critiques tend to share these characteristics (and I recognize that others would have a different list):

--corrects anything that is factually wrong (even the most minor detail…I was told that the Rehoboth Beach restaurant is Grotto Pizza, not Grotto’s Pizza as I had written, and I was sincerely grateful to learn that).
--points out areas of confusion

--offers light suggestions for how to fix things. Ultimately, I may ignore that particular suggestion, but seeing how someone else would approach the problem of throwing the sisters together without being too coincidental is helpful for me; these solutions often lead me to my own.

--asks questions of any magnitude. I find this especially helpful in a novel-in-progress, where the writer is still shaping the story: How many years was the father with Barbara? Why is Nora so bitter?…whoops! Nora wasn’t supposed to seem bitter, which brings us to the following--

--and here’s the biggie: I need a good critique to help me see that I’m viewing things from an odd or skewed perspective…basically, from my own point of view. Obviously, always I’m seeing things from my point of view; we all are. But when several people tell me, “I think the father would be more frantic because his daughter is missing,” I listen, because I am NOT a father with a missing daughter, and because I don’t have children, I am very alert to clues that I may be missing some sort of "standard" parental behavior. This is assuming I want this father to be “normal”: in other cases, when people say, “The father should be more frantic here,” I note to myself that the exact point I’m making here is that the father ISN’T frantic when perhaps he should be, and so I, as the writer, need to work harder to show WHY the father is not following this “expected” behavior.

--Which brings me to an even bigger question I’ve been pondering about critiques, both the ones I write and the ones I get: In cases like that (“the father isn’t frantic enough”) are we responding to the work as ourselves? Or do we try to imagine how THIS CHARACTER—as drawn, as we’ve been experiencing him through the work—should respond? Which approach is more helpful to the writer? I often find it confusing when someone suggests a character act a certain way: in real life, yes, I know a “good” person would act that way. But would my character? Isn’t the point that he’s flawed and not “good” right now?

For me, this often comes up because I write about flawed parents, so yes, a mother “shouldn’t” kill herself and leave behind her two children (as in my novel A Year and a Day). So, I need the critiquers to understand that they have to accept that premise and move forward from there: She shouldn’t, but she did…so how would THAT WOMAN then respond in or react to or handle various situations? Not, What would you do? And, of course, not, What would I the writer do?

As you sort through that stack of critiques—or listen to the comments carom about in a lively workshop—try to remember that distinction. You are you, and your character is your character. (Sorry, Flaubert: you are NOT Madame Bovary!) Are the people offering advice and suggestions thinking as themselves…or thinking as your character? What would Jesus do?

No answers, only questions. I’m sure I’ll explore this topic further down the road, and I’m interested in any thoughts you might have. You can email me here.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Oldies But Goodies, 4: Talking the Talk

While I’m teaching at Converse College in SC, I’m re-running some of my favorite posts about writing:

Posted on April 3, 2008

Work in Progress: Talking the Talk
We were talking about dialogue in my novel workshop at Johns Hopkins last night, and I thought I’d pass along a few of my suggestions for how to hone your dialogue skills.

1. Eavesdrop. Listen to people talking in coffee shops, in lines, in restaurants, on the metro, everywhere. Listen for content, yes, but also the rhythms of speech. How do people express themselves? What words, what patterns of speech? Steve and I were at a restaurant in Baltimore and overheard a scruffy man at the bar say to another, “I ate horsemeat in France.” We spent at least half an hour talking about where one might go with that story! There’s a great website for overheard information, Overheard in New York (I know, what better city for eavesdropping?), that has all these great—supposedly true—comments that were overheard in the streets of New York. The best have been compiled into a book now.

2. Try writing a screenplay or a play—or even just a few scenes—where everything must be conveyed ONLY through spoken dialogue and action. This is tough and eye-opening. No description, no interior thought, no narrator…your mind focuses on dialogue pretty quickly. I wrote a screenplay several years ago, and though nothing ever happened with it as a movie, afterwards, dialogue in my fiction improved immensely.

3. Tape a long conversation between you and a friend/spouse and then transcribe it, starting after about ten minutes in when you’ve settled into the flow of talking. See for yourself what the rhythms of speech look like on paper. See how distinct your style and pattern of speech is from your friend. It’s great, especially, if you can choose someone of a different gender. Men and women often speak differently—examine these differences. (For example, men don’t use words like “really” as often—“he’s really busy.” Men may be more direct: “I was wondering if you’d mind keeping your dog inside?” vs. “Can you keep your dog inside?” Maybe even, “Keep your dog inside.”) Take your transcript and edit it—tighten it up and make it interesting; how can you cut through the tedious parts to get to the heart of the matter? Of course, if you really have no qualms, tape two people who don’t know you’re taping them…you’ll probably get something even more natural sounding!

4. Copy out (literally, by hand) the dialogue from a book/writer you admire who writes good dialogue. Study how the writer makes that dialogue work. Are there patterns of speech? What does it sound like if you read it out loud? How do the characters interact? Where did the writer shortcut through information?

5. Speaking of reading out loud, I think that’s one of the best self-editing tools around—reading your work out loud—and this is especially true of dialogue. Your ears will catch things your eye won’t; your voice will feel clunky and awkward if your dialogue is clunky and awkward and not like spoken language. I always read everything out loud at least once and wouldn’t consider my work finished until I have.

6. Write practice monologues of your characters explaining their actions: you’ll get a feel for how they think. Once you know how someone thinks and how they explain themselves, you’ll have a better feel for who they are as people…therefore, how they express themselves in their own words. What are those words? I was having a hard time getting a feel for one of my characters in my novel in progress, Prodigal Daughters, so I wrote a monologue in her voice. Very helpful!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Oldies but Goodies, 3: In Praise of Discipline

While I’m teaching at Converse College in SC, I’m re-running some of my favorite posts about writing:

Posted on December 20, 2007

Work in Progress: In Praise of Discipline

I have been revising my novel in progress on and off since late September. This is (I hope) the final revision before sending my baby out into the world, so it’s not the time to say, “Oh, I’ll fix this later.” Later is NOW.

You may guess where this is going…there are several things to fix that I didn’t “feel like” fixing earlier, because they were too hard. There are things to fix that I didn’t know needed fixing until I got to the end of the manuscript and had the whole story (finally!) out in front of me. Some things I thought were fine until my fabulous writing group kindly informed me that, no, actually I was mistaken to think those things were fine; those things need serious fixing!

Basically, what I’m saying is that as much as I prefer revision to the empty terror of the first draft where I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, this revision right now is actually quite hard for me. It’s not a matter of wide swathes of change—new scenes, new characters, massive deletions, joyful red pen everywhere. Rather, it’s that type of revision where you know you need to come up with one or two sentences that are absolutely perfectly written, to fit exactly there between these two paragraphs, to convey a nuance to a character’s personality as they illustrate an important thematic thread, move the plot forward, AND set up things for the big reconciliation scene two chapters ahead. Hard, hard, hard. There are moments when I think I’d rather be digging ditches.

During those difficult moments, I find that the first place I want to turn is the refrigerator or the cupboard where sometimes there are potato chips. If there’s nothing there, I head to the internet (yes, those articles about Britney’s pregnant sister are very important). I have even been known to jump at the sound of the dryer dinging because folding laundry is preferable to the task at hand. Sick, sick, sick. But, perhaps not entirely unfamiliar to your “process.”

So it’s a struggle to stay focused, especially since there are many other activities beckoning at this time of year: cookies won’t bake themselves. Appropriate gifts for loved ones don’t select themselves (or pay for themselves either, come to think of it).

In the midst of all this internal and external distraction, I was working on a particularly troubling chapter that needed a great deal of work—I’m hoping it might be safe to say that this is the chapter that required the MOST work, but we’ll see. For several days, I tried to squeeze in my work around cookies, laundry, etc., figuring some writing is better than none (true). But it wasn’t going well, and finally I buckled down. I went to the library, which is the most intense place around here—everyone there is buried in their work; it’s hard even to get a carrel, and the place is spookily silent. It’s the kind of place where you’re embarrassed to get up after sitting at your desk for two hours straight because the person directly across from you hasn’t left their seat in all that time and had been sitting there before you arrived. So, needless to say, I focused on my work in the library. (I previously wrote about this very intense library here.)

The next day I turned off the internet for as long as I could stand it.

Then I let the laundry pile up. I didn’t jump to answer emails. I put off going to the post office to mail my packages. As much as possible, during my writing time, I tried to immerse myself in my hard chapter. I was disciplined.

My reward? Because I was much more present in the work, thinking about it and not letting myself get distracted with either the tediousness or the joy of daily life, I woke up one morning with the dialogue in my head for the most difficult part of the chapter—I jumped up and wrote it all down, several pages, just letting the words flow, deciding to worry later about making them perfect.

Later that day, I sat down and looked over my “vision.” It wasn’t perfect, but it was something I could move forward on. I worked on it that afternoon, fixing it, enhancing it, plugging it into the chapter. I made it “perfect.”

I’m not sure I believe in visions. But I do believe in the kind of discipline where when you show up and take your work seriously, your subconscious will take pity on you and do the heavy lifting: “Hey, dummy, see how you can get the father to have to make an impossible choice if he doesn’t go to the hospital first? Uh, isn’t that one of the important themes of your book? How about pulling that forward? Duh!” (I hope your subconscious is less surly than mine.)

And not only do I believe in that, I rely on it. You will figure it out, you will get through the hard parts, you will come up with those two perfect sentences that do everything you want and more. You will that is, if you keep working.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Oldies But Goodies, 2: When to Say Goodbye

While I’m teaching at Converse College in SC, I’m re-running some of my favorite posts about writing:

Posted on June 8, 2007

Work in Progress: When to Say Goodbye
Sorry that this is a little long. I haven’t figured out how to do a blog jump to another page (technical advice always welcome). I think I’ve been inspired by Josh Henkin's “Letter to an MFA Student” this week on Buzz, Balls & Hype. Enough throat-clearing….

I’m teaching a fiction workshop at Johns Hopkins University, and last week, at our first meeting, one of the students asked a difficult question: Are there books that simply can’t get published, and what should that mean to a beginning writer? When should we give up on a book (or a story)? The question stuck with me throughout the week because it’s so hard to answer definitively.

Of course, only the writer can make that difficult decision about when to give up on a project; I don’t think it’s a teacher’s place to specifically tell a student to move on (though some might disagree). So, how do you as the writer—beginning or experienced—know when to abandon something and take what you’ve learned and move forward with your knowledge, applying it to something new? Certainly it’s much easier to leave behind a 10-page story you’ve been working on for a month than a 300-page novel you’ve been working on for three years.

I’m a big believer in persistence and perseverance—and have my share of stories to support that: the short story that 25 journals rejected before it won $500 in a contest (and became the first chapter of Pears on a Willow Tree); the journal that had rejected my story then called up three months later to tell me they “loved” my story that they had just found in a drawer (this story was then cited in the back of the Best American Short Stories); the dozens of queries I sent out before finding an agent—not once, but twice. I wrote three novels that didn’t get published. And certainly I have plenty of short stories that I thought were perfectly fine—and some even more than fine—that didn’t ever get published that I had to choose to abandon.

But this perseverance also has to be balanced with moving forward. In all those instances, though I was still committed to the project in question, I had also moved forward in a variety of ways: I kept sending out the stories to other places, I had already started another novel while waiting to find an agent.

And that’s the key, I think, to finding the proper balance. People will offer various tidbits of advice, much of it valid:
--Don’t give up until you’ve lost interest and can’t stand your book anymore
--Don’t give up until you now see and understand why the piece is not successful
--Don’t give up until you’ve literally sent it everywhere you can, A to Z in the agent book
--Don’t give up until you’ve rewritten your book or story so many times you can’t see straight

But this is the piece of advice that makes the most sense to me, given my past experience: Write something new, and that will lead you to the point where you know it’s time to give up. More concisely, Don’t give up until you write something new.

I think that’s the thing that makes us know when we’re ready to move forward: when we’ve written more books or stories and in doing so, we’ve reached a new point from which to evaluate earlier work. We’re so engaged by a new project that we can dispassionately see the flaws in the old, but we don’t feel the energy or zeal or need to rewrite again; that’s when we can let go. (And letting go doesn’t mean you’ve “failed”—it just means you’re moving on.) Or, we’re so engaged by the new project that we can see that it’s simply time to let go of the old because we want to focus on the new—again, which isn’t failing. It doesn’t have to mean that the old was “bad”—something can be entirely successful on your terms and still not get published. Getting published should never be used as the total benchmark of what’s “successful.” Plenty of crap is published, plenty of great literature struggles. The Great Gatsby was out-of print when Fitzgerald died; same with Faulkner’s work at his death. Emily Dickinson wasn’t published during her lifetime; Walt Whitman self-published “Song of Myself.” We know the stories. (And who knows what great works have fallen through the cracks?). Publishing is about making money, not necessarily about making art.

In graduate school, I think there’s a temptation to view each piece as the “masterwork” and the thesis as the life’s mission. Many years after getting my MFA, I returned to my alma mater as a returning “visiting writer,” and I shocked a huge room of MFA students (and some profs) by announcing that my thesis was crap and that I was happy now it hadn’t been published.

Yes, MFA students should be proud of their thesis as they write it and must put hard work into it to make it as perfect as it can be. And going through an MFA program and finishing a thesis and getting a degree is a tremendous achievement. But if you’re a serious writer, this thesis most likely will not be the only thing you write. And—because you will continue to write and read and grow as a person and have new life experiences that shape you—it probably will not be the best thing you write. Have confidence that you will improve. Be persistent, but always keep your eye on whatever’s lurking around the next bend. Writing is a path without limits, without constraints. Your best work may be just ahead, the piece you start tomorrow. Or the one after that. Or after that.

That’s where your perseverance is most necessary: to keep writing in the face of rejection.

I was on a panel this spring with Carolyn Parkhurst, author of the best-selling and wonderful novels The Dogs of Babel and Lost and Found, which is about a TV reality show (and is just about to be released in paperback). She’s a very down-to-earth person, and very smart, and when this topic came up, it was not all that surprising that she quoted a Doritos commercial from several years ago: “Crunch all you want. We’ll make more.”

That is, you won’t run out of ideas. You won’t run out of stories. The only thing you’ll run out of, eventually, is time. And the only way to address that is to squeeze a lot in: write a lot and write well and move forward. Trust yourself, trust that your work will only get better.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Oldies But Goodies, 1: Details Matter

While I’m teaching at Converse College in SC, I’m re-running some of my favorite posts about writing:

Posted on July 12, 2007

Work in Progress: Details Matter

I’m teaching a fiction workshop this summer at Johns Hopkins, and we’ve been talking a lot about how every single detail matters—especially in a short story. That details shouldn’t be chosen randomly—or if chosen randomly, then used purposely during the revision process. (For example, when writing my novel Pears on a Willow Tree, early on I had one of my characters teaching English in Thailand simply because that’s where my sister happened to be at the time. As I got deeper into the book, first I cursed myself for picking a location I had never been to—and then I congratulated myself on the good fortune to have randomly sent my character to a place that fit precisely with the themes and storyline about immigration and leaving home, as various characters in the book move from Poland to Detroit to Arizona to Thailand.)

So, every detail matters. Why does someone have blonde hair instead of brown? What does the fact that she grew up with blonde hair (instead of brown) mean to her as a character? Why does my character Robert in my novel-in-progress Prodigal Daughters have a dog? First, the book is set in Old Town Alexandria, and everyone there (except me) has a dog, so it’s a natural detail to include. But once there’s a dog in the story, what else can the dog do? And why a mastiff and not a poodle or a basset hound? People who don’t write are always amazed at how much time writers spend thinking about these tiny details that may seem irrelevant to a reader. (Or, if not irrelevant, then seamlessly included so as not to draw attention to themselves to the reader: nothing like a drop of blood appearing on a white dress to announce itself as a big, flashy, IMPORTANT SYMBOL.)

The concept sounds so simple and essential to any art form (I don’t imagine Vermeer was simply slapping down the paint), and yet it’s complicated and hard to grasp. Yes, EVERY detail; yes, every one; YES, even that one.

So I was pleased when one of my Hopkins students sent me this email: “My dark secret is that I was addicted to the The XFiles. It's re-running on the Scifi channel now and after not watching it for several years, I am rediscovering the joy of how complete a universe it was. Wacky but still very character-focused. I was reminded of your ‘everything must serve a point’ this week with one particular episode that did just that. Even from the very first scene, a magazine one character is looking at means everything to that character, and matters a few scenes later. It was so pleasing to have that detail matter. Seems so obvious why it is and why we shouldn't just add ‘flavor’ willy-nilly.”

(And I will never be one to get high and mighty about TV shows as examples of good writing. Read this post for my passionate defense of the near-perfection of the final Sopranos episode, and just wait until The Wire starts up again this fall. Dare I say it? I’d rather watch top-level TV than almost any contemporary movie.)

Anyway…that email reminded me of my own humbling “ah-ha” experience back in the day. I was at the Sewanee Writers Conference and was delighted to be in Tim O'Brien’s workshop. Only…he was making us work! We were having lectures about writing instead of talking about our own manuscripts and how brilliant we were. We had exercises to do outside of our class, and we had to read assignments at night…which, frankly, interfered with the gossipy cocktail parties that were going on. Jeez Louise. All my friends were off having fun, and there I was, copying by hand the first pages of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, supposedly to learn what genius looks like on paper or something.

Tim O’Brien (and the workshop’s wonderful co-teacher, Amy Hempel) were focusing on the idea that every detail matters, that everything in the story must be purposeful. It sounded good in theory, but I was totally disgruntled and couldn’t believe that anyone would worry about every last word in the obsessive way that they seemed to.

We were assigned to read “The Country Husband,” by John Cheever, a classic, beautiful, longish short story (here's a detailed summary). “Go to the party without me,” I martyrishly told my friends, “I have work to do.” So I tucked in and started to read. The story opens with a suburban man riding in a plane that nearly crashes. As he returns home, no one in his family is interested in hearing about his brush with death, and then there’s a lot of description about where the family lives, including a whole paragraph about the neighbor’s dog, Jupiter. I crabbily thought, “Oh, like this dog matters to the story.”*

The dog was not mentioned again for page after page after page.

I read on as the sounds of the cocktail party on the lawn wafted through my window, envisioning all the fun everyone else was having, all the literary gossip I was missing, the agent who was probably visiting that night, eager to read my work.

And then I came to the very end of the story, where, indeed the dog shows up again: perfectly, beautifully, importantly. Two sentences—but sentences that are essential to the story.

I immediately became a believer: in these teachers, in art, in John Cheever, in making every detail matter. YES, every detail…even the dog.

*NOTE: Now that I glance at the story again, I see that the dog is given a whole paragraph. Though the story is long, I’m embarrassed that I was so arrogant or stupid as to think that a writer of Cheever’s caliber would waste a paragraph on irrelevant detail. I guess we have a pretty clear picture of my work from that time, eh?


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