Thursday, April 29, 2010

Guest in Progress: Rachel Hall on Historical Research through Letters

Here is the second half of Rachel Hall’s insightful exploration of why letters are such an effective source for the writer conducting historical research. (If you missed the first part, you can find it here.)

On Letters, Part II
By Rachel Hall

Another inviting aspect of the letter is the way the writer acknowledges the setting in which he or she writes—sometimes to describe it for one who hasn’t been there or to remind the recipient of a familiar place. In this convention of the letter, we get details of setting and mood and a built-in tension—the writer speaking through time and place to reach a particular other as in this one from an Air Force wife to her husband stationed in Korea:

January 20, 1952
Good afternoon,

It’s a bright cold beautiful day here in Iowa. How are you today, my sweet hubby? Jan is snoozing in her afternoon nap & Jay plays cowboy all day long and he hardly even takes a nap anymore. I think it’s high time you are coming home because Jan is beginning to call every man she sees in a magazine “Daddy.”

It will be wonderful to have you home again. You can come home at night to a nice comfy chair & Jay will bring you your slippers & pipe (?!)& I will bring you a nice tall glass of something cold in one of our new iced tea glasses.

The shadows are growing long on the lawn. It’s 4:30 & soon will be dark again & your day just beginning….

In their introduction to WOMEN’S LETTERS: AMERICA FROM THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR TO THE PRESENT, editors Lisa Grunwald and Stephen Adler note that letters talk: “ They are voices fixed on paper.…they tell stories; they tell secrets; they shout and scold, bitch and soothe, whisper and worry, console and advise, gossip and argue, compete and compare. And along the way, they—usually without meaning to—write history. “

In a letter written by the wife of a soldier stationed in the South Pacific in August 1945, this gem: “My, my. What a solemn owl I am tonight. Too much reading about atom smashing, I guess.” The letter is full of the letter writer’s thoughts about religion and politics, her mundane financial concerns. All interesting, but it’s the phrase “solemn owl” that gets the fiction writer. Here we hear a particular person or character.

One of my grandmother’s letters home to Palestine, written in 1941 concludes “Alinette, the happiest amongst us, grows like a mushroom.”Again, the phrasing is the gift of the letter. How interesting that the French say mushroom—that spongy moist growth,--while Americans say one grows like a weed, how revealing of time and place. This phrase, like a choice mushroom itself, could be harvested for my story.

Letters provide an individual voice that speaks to us from the past—and through this voice, we are reminded of the universality of human experience.

This was particularly striking to me as I read the letters collected in Raising a Baby the Government Way: Mother’s Letters to the Children’s Bureau 1915-1932. While the mothers’ concerns were different than my own worries as an expectant and new mother, I heard a tone—anxious, protective, obsessional--that I recognized as my own. Many of the letter writers were worried about marking their unborn babies by viewing a sickly infant or by not satisfying a craving for a particular food. This woman, writing the Bureau in 1925, says this:

…I’m worried sick. Its on my mind all the time. I wake up nights & think of things to eat….& what can you do when you long for watermelon or mush melon, or anything out of season? Can that mark or harm the baby in any way? Oh, please tell me what to do. I couldn’t tell this to anyone else but you, as I have no mother & no one else cares.

Our contemporary wish to protect and shelter our children is the same though it takes different forms—an insistence on organic baby food, for example, or green cotton diapers. These are our 21st century superstitions, fueled by the same deep love and fear.

There’s more to say about letters—the thrill of reading what wasn’t intended for you, for instance or how moving a letter can be. Indeed, this is research that can make you weep, as I discovered reading Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s final letter to their young sons. This is, I think, why stories that include letters—think of Alice Munro here—draw us in. We are trained by the form—even now—to respond, if not with an actual letter than with our hearts. ~Rachel Hall

About: Rachel Hall's work has appeared in many literary journals and anthologies, most recently in Crab Orchard Review, Water~Stone, and New Letters which awarded her their Cappon Prize in fiction. She is at work on a collection of linked stories entitled HEIRLOOMS, which follows a French Jewish family from the eve of WWII to America where they settle after the war. She teaches at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where she holds the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching.

You can listen to an audio version of her story that won the Lilith contest:

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Workshop for Novels/Memoirs-in-Progress

Writer Hildie Block is holding a 1-year workshop for novels/memoirs in progress, with registration starting on May 1. Here’s the information she sent:

Registration for the Year Long WRITE YOUR BOOK workshop in Falls Church City begins on May 1.

Are you working on a novel or memoir? This workshop meets over 1 year -- in 8 week segments with month-long breaks -- for about 28 class meetings -- and you get to workshop your book as you write it!

This is our 5th Year, now! I can't believe it! It's such a wonderful class -- it's so cool for me, the workshop leader to see folks work toward their goals!

Class meets Monday nights, 7:30-10, starting late September -- in Falls Church City. Plenty of public transit -- also easy parking right at the door. In about 28 class meetings over a year, we go through book structures, deep issues in fiction and memoir and then publishing questions -- agents, queries -- the whole 9 yards.

Participants workshop their books in 30 page "chunks" -- about one "chunk" a month or so. The goal is to get to workshop about 200+ pages of your draft in progress as you are writing it! Class is structured with a prompt to get you thinking about your book differently -- a lesson -- and then workshop. We spent 30-40 minutes on a "chunk" in workshop.

I can only take 8-10 folks. The deposit is $100 and is payable via paypal or check. The full cost is $850 (100 deposit + 750). The balance isn't due until September. The course cost includes any text we'll use, as well as a one-on-one hour with me. You will be responsible for making copies of your work to distribute in class.

Payment via paypal to or checks to be mailed to Hildie Block (please email for address:

More information about Hildie Block:

Mark Your Calendars: AIW Conference on 6/12

American Independent Writers presents
the 31st AIW Writers Conference:

New Realities: The (R)evolution of Writing and Publishing
The George Washington University Cafritz Conference Center
Marvin Center Building
800 21st Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20052
Saturday, June 12, 2010
Sponsored by American Independent Writers

To register and for more information:
(202) 775-5150

This day-long conference always features a wide variety of panels and speakers talking about the craft of writing as well as the business of writing. It’s a great resource for meeting with an agent, though you must register early to ensure your spot. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Open Mic + Riverby Books = Fun for All

This sounds fun, and a nice excuse to pay a visit to Riverby Books, one of DC’s most charming used bookstores:

A Space Inside will host a multi-genre open mic event on Wednesday, April 28 at 7 p.m . at Riverby Books on Capitol Hill. Readers will include a few series alums, new writers from the neighborhood, and established voices from the DC region. Come to share your own work or just to listen to a diverse set of literary voices. All genres are welcomed--fiction, poetry, nonfiction, drama. Those who would like to read should contact Monica Jacobe ( for details of time constraints, sign-ups, etc.

Firmly in its fifth 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 usually 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.

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.

Poets Laureate at WNBA Event

I will be in class tonight, but if not, I would be at this event sponsored by the Washington chapter of WNBA:

Celebrate Poetry Month with DC Metro area Poet Laureates

Tuesday, April 27, 2010
6:00-8:00 p.m.
Busboys & Poets
2021 14th St, DC (at V Street)

Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda, Poet Laureate of Virginia
Mary McElveen, Poet Laureate of Alexandria, VA
Anne Becker, Poet Laureate of Takoma Park, MD

Monday, April 26, 2010

Poet Sandra Beasley to Read on May 2

I’ve read in the Washington Post about Sandra Beasley’s discomfiture at not knowing the etiquette of the party at the Finnish Embassy’s sauna (naked? not naked?); I’ve enjoyed sneak-up-on-you, late-night vodka drinks with her after a hard night of teaching at Johns Hopkins; and I’ve read her sharp, smart poems while sitting amidst the swirl of a bookstore, lost to the world (and then continued reading in the quiet of my house). I’ve been at events she’s organized to a T, and I’ve shared potluck dinners with her. I printed off from her blog a recipe for carrots.

But I’ve never seen Sandra read from her own work. My fault, and now I’m about to rectify the situation on Sunday, May 2, when she’s reading from her new book, I WAS THE JUKEBOX, at Politics & Prose at 1 PM.

I WAS THE JUKEBOX won the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize, selected by Joy Harjo, and is just out this month from W. W. Norton. Publisher’s Weekly recently reviewed the book: “More fun than most recent books, Beasley's second collection can also get quite serious: in the best parts, the poet pretends she is any number of nonhuman things—a jukebox, an orchid, the Egyptian god Osiris, an eggplant (in a sestina), grains of sand…. If Beasley's conceits owe something to Kenneth Koch, her tone and her subjects might place her with chick lit, too: this is a book that could go a long way.” I totally agree, and you can see for yourself with two poems from the book here.

Politics & Prose is at 5015 Connecticut Avenue NW, with a parking lot around the back of the store; it is closest to the Van Ness-UDC stop on the red line metro. Here is the official event listing:

You can read more about Sandra at her website:

Hope to see you on Sunday!

Why I Like Spartanburg

Here’s a nice article from the Washington Post about the charms of Spartanburg, SC, where I teach in the Converse College Low-Residency MFA program. Too bad the writer didn’t manage to get to the Beacon Drive-In!

From the article:
“As a writer looking for a story, I find there's a temptation to construct a premise before I even arrive. Given Spartanburg's former heyday as a railroad hub and the massive BMW manufacturing plant nearby, I flirted briefly with the notion of a transportation theme. But my pre-trip research showed me that the city, with six institutions of higher learning, a relatively new cultural complex and a healthy dose of Revolutionary War history, refused to be pigeonholed. So with trepidation I backed off as a Type-A planner and decided to see where my pursuit of fun took me.”

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Guest in Progress: Rachel Hall on Letters in Historical Research

I’m delighted to share Rachel Hall’s wonderful exploration of why the use of personal letters is important to writers conducting historical research.

Rachel and I met at Bread Loaf many years ago. At the risk of making myself sound like a kindergartner, I distinctly remember my first sighting of her: I was standing in the lobby of the Inn on the first day, feeling despondent that “no one would like me,” when I saw her walk by, on her way to the mailboxes, and I immediately thought, “I want to be friends with her.” Lo and behold, we met later that day at a gathering of the group of writers who were Bread Loaf Scholars that year, and we hit it off immediately. Later, she confessed that she had noticed me standing in the lobby and had had a similar feeling of connectedness.

This piece is adapted slightly from Rachel’s presentation at the recent AWP conference, where the two of us were members of the panel entitled “Shh!: Librarians, Archivists and Writers on Research.” She’s incredibly smart about writing (and so many things), and her short stories and essays are evocative and painful, never shying away from the hard questions we all face. My favorite feeling in the world is to read her work and immediately find myself thinking, “My, God, that’s so good…and how amazing and lucky for me that she’s my friend.”

[Note: Part II will run next week, followed by Rachel’s recommended list of collections of letters.]

On Letters, Part I
By Rachel Hall

I have always loved letters—writing them, of course, but receiving them even more. Every day, I look hungrily in my mailbox, an old-fashioned contraption that requires a 100-yard walk from my house. That I’m usually disappointed, that I write few letters myself these days, does nothing to prevent my eagerness to tug open the lid. But this is not, I promise, a plea for a pen pal or even a manifesto to bring back the written letter, along with 45s or the typewriter, hats and gloves for ladies. What follows are some thoughts on the value of letters, how they are different from other forms of research in their usefulness for the writer of historical fiction, and some examples.

I’m working on a collection of linked stories based on my mother’s childhood in France during WWII. All my life, I’ve heard her stories and my grandparents’ stories—how they didn’t register at City Hall when Jews were required to do so, how they were denounced in this town or that village and fled just ahead of the police. Writing these stories, I find I have particular questions that my grandmother at 103 can no longer answer and my mother, who was a young girl at the time, probably never knew. For instance, did they correspond with my grandmother’s family in Palestine during the war? I felt instinctively that they must have had contact, but wouldn’t it have been risky to mail a letter to Palestine in those days? To receive one? When I asked my mother, she found a bundle of letters saved by her aunt who lived in Palestine—later Israel. The letters had indeed come from France during the war—some directly, such as the one where my grandfather, stationed at the Maginot Line, tells of his situation at the beginning of the war. He writes,

Bien cherstous: You can be completely calm about my fate. I am very well. I eat well. I have a good, warm room. And everything. I even think I’m gaining weight.

There are other letters, too, some sent to a friend who acted as a courier. The existence of these letters, despite the obvious risk and difficulty, said something important to me about writing historical fiction. Because letters are from an individual, they remind us in a way that other sources cannot that people felt and said and did things that history suggests they would not. In a review of a historical novel in the Times, the reviewer took issue with a character who found solace in the beauty of some yellow flowers in the spring. No one, the reviewer indicated, ever thought about daffodils in this way before Wordsworth’s 1804 poem.

But I’m not sure. Individuals, after all, behave independently and outside of historical movements, which are percolating long before arriving on the scene. In letters we find those individual voices responding to particular situations, and we hear the individual voice that gets muffled, summarized away by history. My family letters gave me permission both concretely and in the abstract to make my characters individuals, not the masses living under Vichy law. If I wanted a character to send and receive mail during WWII, I could do it—the letters were evidence of the possibility even though research about the era suggested otherwise. Here, for instance, is an example of the preprinted post card that was permitted between the Occupied Zone and Unoccupied Zone until May 1941. Writers were to check and cross out words as applicable.


. . . in good health. . . tired. . . slightly, seriously ill. . . wounded . . . killed.

. . . prisoner. . . died. . . without news of. . . .

The family … is well in need of supplies…of money . . . news, luggage. . .

has returned to…is working in…will go back to school at…is being put up at…is going to…

Best wishes. Love….


Of course, journals, if my relatives had written them, might offer some of the same kinds of information as letters. The Journal of Helene Berr has been useful for my project. Berr describes her life as a Jewish woman living in Paris during the Occupation. Her journal is beautifully written—Berr was a student of literature at the Sorbonne before the war—and full of details about that time, but it is first and foremost, a private record, a means to maintain some order in a world tilting into chaos. Letters, because of their communicative purpose, provide more for the fiction writer. They are active, crackling with tension, in a way that a journal is not. The letter writer is desiring something--response and connection, information—which is, of course, crucial to fiction. A letter, too, seeks response from a particular other. That relationship is implied in a letter—we learn something of the dynamic between the writer and receiver, making letters a rich source for both character and conflict.

In his book Yours Ever, People and their Letters, Thomas Mallon laments the frequency with which only half of a correspondence is available. He writes, “it’s an irony that besets epistolary friendships: the letters of the disorderly person or the wanderer wind up being saved and filed and organized; what’s written by the correspondent with regular habits disappears into the other person’s chaos.” This is true certainly with my family’s letters—we have the letters from France from 1939 to 1945, but none of the ones sent from home, those were likely destroyed before one of the many quick departures or lost in the shuffle. While this lack of replies and forerunners might be frustrating if I were trying to write a biography or a nonfiction account of this time period, the gaps or silences in the correspondence provide opportunity for the fiction writer. These are “the voids” which Geraldine Brooks encourages writers of historical fiction to inhabit. Out of these disjunctures or holes in the conversation fiction may be born. ~Rachel Hall

To be continued next week….

About: Rachel Hall's work has appeared in many literary journals and anthologies, most recently in Crab Orchard Review, Water~Stone, and New Letters, which awarded her their Cappon Prize in fiction. She is at work on a collection of linked stories entitled HEIRLOOMS, which follows a French Jewish family from the eve of WWII to America where they settle after the war. She teaches at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where she holds the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching.

You can listen to an audio version of her story that won the Lilith contest:

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Salinger Letters: "Most stuff that is genuine, anyway, is better left unsaid"

A peek behind the curtain, where the Morgan Library in NYC is displaying some of Salinger’s letters. Read more commentary and excerpts (that I found to be sad and uncomfortable and oddly revealing) here at The New Republic:

“Salinger’s reputation has taken some hits, and critics remain divided over the ultimate value of his work. Perhaps the “scripts” that he was “picking at” for so many years will restore him as one of the great writers of postwar America. Or perhaps they will reflect the hermetic mind of an old crank who eschewed the “distraction of first-class friendship” to “stew” in his “own juice.” Regardless, they offer a view into the writing life of a man whose books—as the crowds at the Morgan attest—were deeply, personally important to his readers. That may not have been any of Salinger’s business, but it is ours.”

How to Write: Read, Write, Repeat

Here’s an inspiring piece in the Atlantic Monthly by one of my favorite teachers, Richard Bausch, bemoaning the “how to write” books and summoning forth the artist in us:

“My advice? Put the manuals and the how-to books away. Read the writers themselves, whose work and example are all you really need if you want to write. And wanting to write is so much more than a pose. To my mind, nothing is as important as good writing, because in literature, the walls between people and cultures are broken down, and the things that plague us most—suspicion and fear of the other, and the tendency to see whole groups of people as objects, as monoliths of one cultural stereotype or another—are defeated.”

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Books Received: Alone with You by Marisa Silver

With a beautiful Edward Hopper cover, this book of short fiction would have cried out to me if I didn’t already know that Marisa Silver’s short stories are exemplary. Three of these pieces first appeared in The New Yorker, where Silver made her debut as a fiction writer several years ago…but instead of being jealous, be admiring.

Here’s the opening of “The Visitor”:

“The new boy was three-quarters gone. Both legs from below the knee and the left arm at the shoulder. Candy spent her lunch hour lying on the lawn outside the VA hospital, sending nicotine clouds into the cloudless sky, wondering whether it would be better to have one leg and no arms—or, if you were lucky enough to have an arm and a leg left, whether it would be better to have them on opposite sides for balance. In her six months as a nurse’s aide, she had become thoughtful about the subtle hierarchy of human disintegration. Blind versus deaf—that was a no-brainer, no brain being perhaps the one wound in her personal calculus that could not be traded in for something worse.

“It was sad. Of course it was sad. But she didn’t feel sad. Sad was what people said they were in the face of tragedies as serious as suicide bombings or as minor as a lost earring. It was a word that people used to tidy up and put the problem out of sight.”

“Leap” was another favorite of mine, in which a remembered, potential “stranger-danger” moment, heart surgery, an unfaithful husband, and an overweight dog jumping off an embankment combine evocatively to show the narrator that life is dangerous and unpredictable and, of course, filled with “radiant possibility.”

Her prose is beautiful and smart and will take your breath away.


Marisa Silver guest-blogged last week on The Elegant Variation (start here and click “previous” to get additional posts) about the similarities of advice she would offer to the lovelorn and to writers:

For the lovelorn:

“3. You will never know your partner.

“4. You should never know your partner.”

For the writers:

“3. People will ask you what your work means and you will try to explain it to them, but you won't really be able to explain it even if it sounds like you are saying something intelligent.

“4. You should not be able to explain it. There should always be something ineffable and mysterious about it, even for you. If you've got all the answers, your work will not soar.”

Here’s more information about Alone with You, including a book trailer.

Here’s more information about Marisa Silver (she’s also the author of the novels No Direction Home and The God of War and the short story collection Babes in Paradise).

Here’s another excerpt from the short story “Temporary.”

Disclosure per the FTC overlords: I received a free copy of this book from Simon and Schuster, though I would have bought it for myself, though I must confess that I would have waited for the paperback edition.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Jane Austen Was a Red Sox Fan

Okay, perhaps that headline was slightly misleading in an attempt to draw attention to some good reading I found yesterday in the Sunday newspapers (see—papers are still relevant!):

First, my Red Sox fan husband would be sadly disappointed if I didn’t link to Joe Queenan’s essay in the New York Times Book Review about the irritation of coming across the NY Yankees in books: “I simply refuse to read any books whose authors or characters have any affiliation with the Yankees.”

He goes on to note, “My revulsion does not end with the Yankees. I also refuse to read books whose characters or authors have any affiliation with the Dallas Cowboys, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Duke University men’s basket­ball team, the University of Southern California football team or Manchester United, the Yankees’ European football evil twin. All of these entities are promiscuously vile.”

The piece concludes with some amusing “original drafts” of Great Works, before they were wisely edited so as not to alienate readers like Queenan:

He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees, making it hard to pick up the radio broadcast of the Michigan-U.S.C. game.” (For Whom the Bell Tolls)

And, of course:
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had. Like Gehrig batting cleanup.’ ” (The Great Gatsby)

Read the whole thing here.


Jane’s Fame, by Claire Harman, the book I wrote about here, got reviewed this weekend in The Washington Post and the New York Times Book Review:

From the Post:

"After her untimely death (perhaps from cancer), her work had enough of a following to inspire what was called the "silver fork" genre, in which novelists such as Edward Bulwer-Lytton fed nostalgia for the Regency period by describing at length the clothes and utensils associated with its "quality." Ironically, some surviving Austens, who had struck it rich and risen in the world, sniffed at the middle-class milieu portrayed in Jane's books and made no effort to champion the genius in their midst."

From the Times Book Review:

"The strongest arguments come early on, when Harman presents Austen as anything but an amateur. An extremely canny writer, the most talented member of a surprisingly literary family, Austen read her contemporaries and predecessors rigorously, thinking deeply about her own style, about her aspirations for her writing. Amazingly, Austen came up with technical breakthroughs that would take the novel well into the modern era."

Writer's Workshop Scholarships

Check out these somewhat specialized scholarships to the Antioch Writers’ Workshop, especially for single parents, poets, and/or writers who have made a special contribution to the community:

Antioch Writers' Workshop offers three scholarships annually, with both first and second place awards. Details are here:

► First place scholarships are for a full waiver of registration and tuition for the Full Week experience ($735.00 value).
► Second place scholarships are for a half waiver of registration and tuition ($367.50 value.) Recipients must pay for the other half of the registration and tuition ($367.50.)
► For both first and second place awards, recipients must cover their own travel, lodging, food and other accommodations for the week. Manuscript critique, book purchases, and other expenses are not covered.
► Recipients must agree to have their name and likeness used on the AWW web site, blog, email newsletter, press releases, and other publicity materials.
► Deadline for all submissions is May 1 (received by, if mailing to P.O. Box address, or sent by that date if submitting online.)
► The scholarships are national; any adult (over age 18) from anywhere in the United States may apply. However, scholarship winners may not apply for the same scholarship in the subsequent year.

Antioch Writers' Workshop Scholarships are:
Betty Crumrine Scholarship--awarded to a single parent who is committed to writing and who could not otherwise attend the workshop. The Crumrine Scholarship was created by friends of Betty Crumrine, who lived and wrote in Yellow Springs and participated in the Antioch Writers’ Workshop from 1986 until 1990. She worked full time at the Miami Valley Arts Council and later at the Miami Literacy Council, raising three children and taking care of her own mother while writing true confession stories and young adult novels. She died of cancer in March 1991. In honor of her encouragement of new writers, the Antioch Writers’ Workshop welcomes applications from beginning writers as well as those in mid-career. To apply, please send your submission (poetry, nonfiction, fiction, or drama), conforming to the formatting and submission requirements detailed below, and a one-page letter explaining your writing experience and plans and need for financial aid.

Judson Jerome Poetry Scholarship--The scholarship is named after Judson Jerome, a poet and nonfiction writer, writer of textbooks, professor, and poetry editor who founded the Antioch Writers’ Workshop along with William Baker. Please send your poetry submission, conforming to the formatting and submission requirements detailed below, along with a bio of yourself (not longer than a page).

Bill Baker Scholarship--for a writer who is nominated by someone who can testify to his or her qualifications both as writer and community member. The scholarship is named after Bill Baker, co-founder of the Antioch Writers’ Workshop, writer of textbooks, journalist, and fiction writer. To submit a nomination for the Bill Baker Scholarship, please send the nominee’s name, contact information, a short sample of their writing (conforming to the formatting and submission requirements detailed below), and a 1-2 page essay that delineates their bravery, innovation, or significant contribution to their community.

Formatting and Submission Requirements for AWW Scholarships:
Fiction and Nonfiction Writers
► The work may be up to 20 pages, and must be page-numbered, double-spaced, in 12 point Times New Roman font, with margins of at least 1" on all sides. Contact information should appear in the upper lefthand corner of the first page, with the author's last name at the top of every subsequent page.

► The work must be 10 pages of poetry, either single- or double-spaced, in 12 point Times New Roman font, with margins of at least 1" on all sides. Contact information should appear in the upper lefthand corner of the first page, with the author's last name at the top of every subsequent page.

If submitting via email, email manuscript as attachment in PDF or WORD (.doc) format to:
(replace (at) with @) with name of scholarship you're applying for in the Subject line

If submitting via postal mail, submit two copies, printed on one side of 8.5" x 11" white paper, with page number to:
Attn: Scholarship Name (either Betty Crumrine, Judson Jerome, or Bill Baker)
P.O. Box 494
Yellow Springs, OH 45387

Manuscripts that fail to comply to the above formatting standards may be eliminated. Photocopies made from published work will not be accepted.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

AWP Wrap-Up II: The Writing Side of It

After attending the AWP conference, I have a head stuffed with ideas/observations, and a notebook filled with scribbles about writing wisdom. I also have several new literary journals and subscriptions to peruse courtesy of the fabulous bookfair. I can’t possibly cover everything, but here are a few of the highlights that stand out:

[Note: Even when I use quotation marks, all quotations are paraphrased and probably misappropriated (if I even try to decipher who said what), and I’m sure I’ll spell someone’s name wrong, so I’m sorry in advance.]

The Long Short Story Panel appalled me because I didn’t realize that a 25-page story is considered “long” these days--!! One thing that stuck with me is the idea that a longer short story is “writing towards something” vs. a shorter piece, which is “coming from something.” Some of the longer story masters named were Alice Munro, William Trevor, Annie Proulx, Flannery O’Connor, Bret Anthony Johnson. In the end, it was generally agreed that “the material chooses the length.”

I dragged myself out of bed early for a great panel on writing from a child’s point of view and was reminded (by the panelists) of the cruelty inherent in the world of children and what rich material that can be. (High school, anyone?) Another important point that Eric Pulchner made was that there’s a misperception that children “are incapable of complex emotions—in reality, they may simply be unable to articulate those emotions.” Elizabeth Stuckey-French noted that “first-person, present tense can only go so far—the third person or retrospective can add more” and described children as “outsiders, looking into the world of adults.” Dan Chaon piggybacked onto that when he noted that “childhood takes place in an alternate universe.” Joy Williams was cited several times as a masterful writer from the child/adolescent point of view, and Dan Chaon read from an amazing story called “Dead on Arrival” from Fake House, a collection by Linh Dinh.

“Plot as Ritual” was another smart panel in which the panelists reminded us that “plot” is not a dirty word in our “character-driven” MFA worlds. As John Dufresne noted, “characters have to have something meaningful to do—readers need to know it’s not a cruise to nowhere” and suggested that “plots are coaxed into being; a plot begins to form when the writer asks central questions: what does the character want? Why is s/he not getting it? How does s/he overcome these obstacles?” On the other hand, Antonya Nelson asked: “How large of a role does ‘plot’ play in your own life?” She thinks in terms of a story’s “shape” instead, suggesting that the shape needs to grow organically from the story and is found in revision; to add shape, she suggests putting characters on journeys or putting them into an institutional ritual, such as a wedding.

“The Bitch Panel”—the catchy AWP name for a panel about writing about unsympathetic female characters—was thought-provoking and funny. Most interesting to me was the panel’s suggestion that female readers might be called to task for (as a collective whole) choosing “safe” stories about “nice” women instead of embracing the more complicated, difficult female characters who may act without remorse and/or not even learn a lesson or get punished in the end. I was also intrigued by moderator Rose Bunch’s remark that as a workshop student she was constantly told that her female characters were unbelievable (“no woman would do that”) but that when she changed them to male characters, everyone was fine with those difficult, unsympathetic, flawed men. In the end, Pam Houston wondered what the role of art is, and concluded that the “job of the writer is not to look away from the darkness, not to make it nice, but to refuse to look away: and there is hopefulness in that.”

I also attended two wonderful readings, one sponsored by the Sun magazine, and one a tribute to David Hamilton, the now-retired editor of the Iowa Review. There, I heard an incredibly mesmerizing reading, a brief excerpt of a novel about a teen runaway called Miles from Nowhere. Author Nami Mun had us all squirming in our seats as we were dying to know what happened next even as we most definitely didn’t want to hear it.

Journals/Books I Couldn’t Resist in Spite of Evil Airline Luggage Restrictions*:
The Paris Review (subscription)
Poet Lore (subscription)
The Georgia Review (subscription)
Creative Nonfiction (subscription; great new redesign!)
American Book Review (The Great Gatsby is on the cover as a “bad book”--!!)
Steve Abbott, Greatest Hits 1981-2003 (poetry chapbook)
Poe Ballantine, Things I Like about America (personal essays by one of my favorite Sun authors)
Poe Ballantine, 501 Minutes to Christ (personal essays by one of my favorite Sun authors)

Speaking of Witness, in a weakish moment I posed for a photo for their paparazzi issue and you can vote for me to win a camcorder (which I’m sure I wouldn’t even know how to use) by going here: and going to page 4. There I am, in a fake fox fur with a toy Chihuahua peeking out of my purse.

Not enough? Poet Eduardo C. Corral has posted several great AWP wrap-ups on his blog. Scroll down, and keep scrolling, to get them all.

Whew…this is long. I hereby give myself permission not to post again until next week. I guess the social aspect and the gossip will have to stay in Vegas, as they say....

*Wait until next year when AWP will be in DC and I can totally load up the car with journals!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

AWP Wrap-Up, Part I: Food

First things first: what did I eat in Denver?

I spent Wednesday-Sunday morning in Denver at the AWP conference, and I think I did a pretty good job food-wise. I mistakenly assumed that Denver wasn’t much of a food town…how wrong I was, as I had one of the best restaurant experiences of my life at the Palace Arms at the historic Brown Palace Hotel.

This was a romantic dinner with Steve—the two of us alone, before too many writers descended—and we had a lovely time, splurging on the chef’s tasting menu. I’ve never been much for soups with potato in the broth, but the vichyssoise was AMAZING. Later, the chef told us that he had recently added it to the menu. (Yes, the chef came out to talk to us—twice. Turns out he had spent some time cooking here in DC—our loss, for sure.) Another highlight was Caesar salad prepared tableside, and the restaurant is famous for its Colorado Bison “Rossini,” which, if I remember correctly, involves Madeira sauce, béarnaise, foie gras, brioche, and a filet of bison. Oh, and some swiss chard to seem healthful. Another amazing dish! Finally, we concluded with a pre-dessert (bread pudding), a dessert (bananas Foster prepared tableside—flames galore!), and a post-dessert of salted caramels and macaroons. Great service: friendly and knowledgeable. A fantastic night, and well-worth every penny if you’re ever in Denver.

[Side note: this place was so good that the following night, Steve returned for a drink in the cigar bar. He returned the next night for dinner with his Denver friend. He returned the next day to meet the Denver friend there for a drink before heading to the baseball game.]

Doesn’t Denver make you think of Eastern European food? Me neither, but because we had had such a fun time last year at the AWP in Chicago with the specialty vodka at Russian Tea Time, we decided to recreate the memory at Red Square Euro Bistro and its vodka bar. Along with several vodka selections (not sure I whole-heartedly recommend fig-infused vodka, but it was fun to try), Steve and I shared some nice pierogi-like dumplings, and he had the rack of lamb which was seasoned beautifully, and I went for elk sausage. Sadly, I selected the elk sausage because it sounded lean and “light.” And the reason I needed something “light” is because I was still pretty full from a lingering lunch at:

Rioja, a Mediterranean restaurant that had an incredible Cuban sandwich (something else I wouldn’t expect in Denver…clearly it is my expectations that were askew here). Also notable was the appetizer I shared with two women: “artichoke tortelloni--goat cheese and artichoke mousse stuffed pasta, artichoke broth, truffle essence, queso de mano cheese, chervil.” We each got one lovely tortelloni nestled in a luscious broth pooled in a pretty white bowl. The dessert we shared had a side of “smoked almond ice cream” that was…let’s just say interesting. (Really, it mostly tasted like bacon.)

I could go on—an excellent Indian lunch buffet, bar burger sliders made of kobe beef with béarnaise (a trend? Definitely beats mustard!)—but I’ll close with the final dinner at Panzano, an Italian restaurant, where I had a contemporary interpretation of veal scallopini (“Scallopine di Vitello—Grass fed veal scaloppini sautéed with lemon, capers and sun-dried tomatoes, over Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and fresh spinach) and an appetizer that I could eat copious amounts of: “Bresaola Sigari--House-cured bresaola rolled with gorgonzola mousse and finished with roasted walnuts and valpolicella reduction.” And how could I forget the refreshing “Italian Rickey” cocktail (which I now see is only $5 during the generous happy hour hours of 2:30-6 pm): “Bombay Gin, fresh squeezed lime juice and simple syrup finished with prosecco.” Like a gin and tonic but without that cloying, gummy mouth-feel that too much tonic can give you.

Oh, how I hate that I was so stuffed that I had to skip lunch entirely one day. And I never even ate breakfast. I suspect there was much, much more to be found and consumed.

So—great food, all within easy walking distance to the conference hotel and convention center, sunny skies and beautiful weather, and friendly people. I can’t believe I thought I wouldn’t especially like this town. Quel fool!

Tomorrow, or the next day, or the next: Part II of the AWP wrap-up that will prove that I actually attended the conference and picked up a few words of wisdom about writing!

Monday, April 12, 2010


...was amazing, but there are a 1000 things awaiting my attention here, so the full report will come...eventually. For now, suffice to say that I would move to Denver--with its 300 sunny days and seeming lack of evil pollen--right this minute.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Off to AWP!

If you’ll be at the AWP conference in Denver this week, I’d love to see you at one of my events:

Declarations of Independence: Voices from The Writer's Center
Friday, April 9
1:30 PM to 2:45 PM
Room 401, 402 – CCC
In its 33-year history, The Writer's Center has fostered exceptional work in all genres of writing through its exceptional workshop program. The writers represented here began writing with us, developed book projects with us, or found support in our community of writers and readers. Join us as we celebrate their work and literary accomplishments.
Featuring: Charles Jensen, Dwaine Rieves, Leslie Pietrzyk, James Mathews, Rose Solari

Shhh!: Librarians, Archivists, and Writers Discover Research
Saturday, April 10
3:00 PM to 4:15 PM
Room: Agate ­ Hyatt
How can fiction writers and poets make the best use of research time? Is your novel set in a historical period? Could your poem use a scientific metaphor? Do you need that detail that can be the hook for your memoir? How can research invite writerly serendipity? Information research professionals and writers are natural allies. This panel will bring these perspectives together to present ways of working with physical materials in archives, electronic resources beyond Google, and other resources.
Featuring: Douglas Dechow, Elizabeth Kadetsky, Leslie Pietrzyk, Cathy Day, Leslie Adrienne Miller, Rachel Hall

AWP Conference: April 7-10, 2010
Hyatt Regency Hotel
650 15th Street
Denver, CO 80202

Blogging to resume upon my return.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Before the Zombies and Book Club Novels Got Hold of Jane Austen...

…she had been essentially forgotten as a writer. !!


“The early editions of her books were small, sold only just well enough not to be an embarrassment, and were remaindered or pulped soon after her death. For most of the 1820s, she was out of print—her family thought forever. In the mid-nineteenth century—heyday of the Victorian triple-decker novel—Austen’s restrained Regency romances looked old-fashioned and irrelevant and met with very mixed critical responses.”

The story of how our views on Jane have shifted from forgotten to slap-her-name-on-a-book-or-movie-and-see-the-royalties-roll-in is the focus of a new book by Claire Harmon, Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World.

Just reading the introduction is enough to give this writer a little boost and thrill in that twisted, writerly way:

“Not only did Jane Austen publish her books anonymously and enjoy very little success during her lifetime, but publication itself came only very late, after twenty years of unrewarded labor. I have sought to reconstruct these prefame years in the spirit of uncertainty through which Austen lived them. Her prized irony and famous manipulation of tone I believe owes much to it; part of the reason why she pleases us so much now is that she was, for years, pleasing only herself.”

I’m looking forward to delving more deeply into this invitingly written book to find out more about the ups and downs of Jane’s “career”—and to be reminded that “art” and “career” are always, always something very separate.

Read more about the book—including reviews--here.

Ordering information here.

The Republic of Pemberly: all things Austen (slogan of site: “Your haven in a world programmed to misunderstand obsession with things Austen”—!!)

[Disclosure per the FTC overlords: I received a copy of Jane’s Fame from Henry Holt, the American publishers of the book.]

Friday, April 2, 2010

Work in Progress: 2 Half-Stories = 1 Full Story (Right?)

Part I: Obsession
What is life without an obsession? Recently I’ve become obsessed with a barn owl named Molly and the live camera feed that shows her and her owlets living in their box nest. I’ve seen her sleeping, feeding one of the owlets, yawning, and stretching, and it’s all entrancing.

Also, somehow this seems related to writing somehow: the people who own the owl box set up the box and the camera and waited for TWO years before a pair of owls moved in. As always, patience is everything.

Peek in on Molly here.

Part II: More on Collage
I’ve written in the past about using word collage as a spark for my work, so I was interested in this approach to collaging, developed by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin in Paris in the late 1950s. As described in Thomas E. Kennedy’s piece for Glimmer Train:

“You take one or more texts—either of your own or someone else's or both, even documents can be used, ad copy, newspapers, anything; you take a pair of scissors and cut the page or pages once vertically and once horizontally so you have four rectangles of paper (or 8 or 12 or 16 or…, according to how many pages you've stacked together and cut. Now shuffle the rectangles so that scraps of different sentences come together….”

Read on here.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Kermit Moyer to Read on 4/14

Kermit Moyer, one of my teachers from American University, will be back in town to read from his new book, The Chester Chronicles:

Wednesday, April 14, 2010
8 PM
American University
Washington, DC

The new book sounds great:
In The Chester Chronicles, Moyer again explores the rocky terrain of childhood and adolescence but this time from a single window: the perspective of Chester “Chet” Patterson, an “Army brat” who grows up in the 1950s and comes of age in the 1960s. Chester’s point of view is retrospective, but the immediacy of his present-tense narration puts us right there in the moment—even though “there” is constantly changing since Chester is always in transit, the perennial outsider, stuck with a name that feels like a running joke and plagued with Oedipal anxieties and existential doubt yet nonetheless convinced of his heroic destiny. Each chapter is a discrete story that chronicles a pivotal moment in Chester’s life, taking him a little deeper into himself as well as a little farther into the century.

And learn more about Kermit here:

This AU reading site is one of the worst event websites I’ve seen (i.e. no times, no directions, no rooms), so I hate to link to it, but here it is since it’s what we’ve got for “official”:


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