Thursday, September 30, 2010

Work in Progress: Not Failing Better*, but Simply Failing

And not failing—I’m not writing in favor of failure! But I have been thinking lately about the idea of doing new things that we may not be excellent at right away, things that will shake up our brains and push us into new territory. For me, this happens to be mental territory—despite my secret fascination with non-fiction accounts of Everest/K2 expeditions gone disastrously wrong, I don’t see a trip to Nepal in my future. I don’t like physical suffering, and when the going gets tough, I immediately want to sit down and eat some Junior Mints.

But tough mental going might be doable. I’ve recently become involved in something that involves words—so that seems comfortable and familiar—but this activity uses words in a very different way than I’m used to (no, not competitive Scrabble), and in a way that’s interestingly uncomfortable for me. Sorry to seem so secretive, but it’s all so new and seems fragile—like the way I feel when I’m thinking about a new novel idea, as if one wrong comment might bring the whole structure down. So I’m keeping this to myself a little longer.

Since I’ve been launched into this new, humbling, hard-for-me environment, I’ve had the kind of new insights that have startled me with their clarity, and my mind—pushed off its familiar path—has produced some interesting connections, so much so that I think I have the germ of the next novel. And just to prove how differently I’ve been thinking…I HAVE THE TITLE OF THIS NOVEL, and even my picky husband had to admit that it was an amazing title.

I know the evidence of the title is so powerful that no further proof is needed, but just to show that the universe can be helpful, yesterday a childhood buddy who has nothing to do with creative writing posted a link on Facebook to this article about the dangers of perfectionism. This article was written for parents of kids who are competitive skiers (I had no idea that was a sizeable audience!), but this paragraph resonated with my current state of mind:

“Though perfectionists often achieve a high degree of success, they often don’t fully realize their ability and achieve true success because of this profound fear of failure. Why? The only way to attain true success is to risk failure, yet perfectionistic children are often unwilling to take that risk. Though the chances of success increase when they take risks, the chances of failure also increase. For example, the only way to ski their fastest may be to ski a really straight line, but there's always the chance of hooking a tip or not being able to hold that line and sliding low on a turn. So perfectionistic children hover in a “safety zone” in which they remain safely at a distance from failure, for example, they are solid top-ten finishers, but are also stuck at a frustrating distance from success. They know they can be really successful, but they just can't understand why they can't get there.”

Change “skiing” to “writing,” and change “children” to “writers,” and redefine “success” to “emotional honesty,” and I’d say this piece could easily appear in a writing magazine. Definitely worth reading the whole thing.

Go forward today (or tomorrow)…uncomfortably.

*Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Notable events for writers looking to connect with other writers and hone their craft:

October 1: Leesburg First Friday (through the Writers Center), Leesburg, VA
Demystifying the Mystery: Tips on Writing Crime Fiction with Marcia Talley

Please join award winning mystery author Marcia Talley as she gives us practical tips on how to ratchet up the tension in our novels, whether they be mysteries or not.

For more information:


October 6 through October 16: Virginia Literary Festival, Richmond, VA

The Library of Virginia Foundation is pleased to announce the launch of the Virginia Literary Festival. Taking place from Thursday, October 6 through Saturday, October 16 and anchored by the popular James Rivers Writers’ Conference and the elegant Virginia Literary Awards, the Virginia Literary Festival celebrates Virginia’s rich literary resources with a ten-day series of events taking place at venues throughout the metropolitan Richmond area.

The festival’s events are broad and geared to both readers and writers, with book talks, writers’ workshops and much more.

Click here to read the press release about the Virginia Literary Festival, and visit for the festival’s Web site.


October 16: F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference, Rockville, MD

This annual conference “hosts workshops, salons, discussions and readings, and the presentation of the annual Award for Outstanding Literary Achievement.” Alice McDermott is this year’s honoree, and workshops include:

Flash Fiction, Kirk Nesset
Nonfiction: One Day in the Life of a Literary Agent, Shannon O’Neill
Narrative Nonfiction: How to do it and why it’s Important, David Rowell
Creative Fictional Characters with Skin, Stacy Barton
The Journey to Finish a Novel, Deanna Frei
From DIY to Independent Publisher: Mixing the Art & Commerce of the Poetry Book, Amy Holman
What does a Successful Article Query Look Like? Lisa Schroder
Fiction: Potomac Review Editors Speak: How to Get Out of the Slush Pile, Zachary Benavidez, Lynn Stearns, Will Grofic

For more information:

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What I'm Reading: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

I’m only about a third of the way through The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, but I’m finding so much to admire that I have to write about it. Part I is like an Edward Hopper painting come to life, and this locale is as precise as it is Anyplace. The loneliness and yearning seep from the pages leaving this reader rather breathless and sad and feeling deepened in some profound way.

The book is an excellent model for any writer who wants to learn how to:
--manage shifting points of view
--create atmosphere
--create setting
--choose vivid details
--write superb physical descriptions
--write flawless sentences that nevertheless don’t draw too much attention to themselves
--capture the ineffableness of music in words
--use dialect
--create distinct and varied characters

And, of course, what an amazing title! (She said jealously.)

Plotwise, it’s a very quiet book, yet there’s such a sense of fragility that right now I don’t want to look up any websites and accidentally find out what’s going to happen to this collection of misfits. I’ll just note that McCullers was only 23 when this book was published, and Tennessee Williams wrote that she “owned the heart, and the deep understanding of it, but in addition she had that ‘tongue of angels’ that gave her power to sing of it, to make of it an anthem.”

And the Literary Journal Subscription Goes to...

…Christine H. of Wellsboro, PA, who chose to receive one of my favorite journals, The Gettysburg Review. Congratulations!

Speaking of literary journals, you can get $10 off a new subscription to The Paris Review (and read a compelling review of the new issue) at Maud Newton’s blog.

Monday, September 27, 2010

dirtcakes: Exciting Journal Inspired by the UN Millennium Development Goals

Here’s an interesting journal/venue that was recently brought to my attention by founding editor Catherine Keefe. The current calls for submission are intriguing:

dirtcakes is a triannual journal of creative nonfiction, poetry, art, and photography dedicated to exploring themes suggested by the UN Millennium Development Goals to end extreme poverty by 2015. "The Hunger Issue" was published in June 2010.

dirtcakes is an edited blog café to follow projects large and small aimed at ending poverty.

dirtcakes welcomes work from both emerging and established writers, and is devoted to presenting work in both its language of origin and translations.

dirtcakes pays its contributors funds gleaned from recycling cans and bottles.

dirtcakes remembers Haiti, the nation from which the title is derived; dirtcakes are what mamans make when there’s no food.

dirtcakes is a movable community sponsoring readings, art shows, instruction in the arts, and events to help give voice to good works.

Read more about this ambitious and inspired journal at the website:

You can submit your creative non-fiction, poetry, and visual media here, but be sure to notice the current call for submissions (deadline October 1):

What We Want: "School Me" Fall, 2010
Dedicated to UN Millennium Goal 2: Achieve Universal Primary Education.
Teach us something. We’re looking for words and images exploring all facets of education. What’s the most important thing you ever learned? Who taught you? What have you tried to teach? Why? What did you first learn? What lessons stayed with you? What didn’t look like a typical education but taught you more than any class?

The next call sounds equally interesting:
Winter 2011: Girls Will Be Women
Dedicated to UN Millennium Goal 3: Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women
What is gender? What is equality? What does it mean to “empower women?” The word “empower” bears within its meaning an inherent giver. Who permits woman to have or to lose power? Does equality mean the same?

ISO Ekphrasis in Fiction and Formal Verse

Speaking of “ekprhasis,” as guest writer Deborah Batterman was on Thursday, here’s a call for submissions for a special issue devoted to ekphrasis (and formal verse):

SOU’WESTER, a literary journal founded in 1960 and housed at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, is now accepting poetry and fiction submissions for a special issue, “Ekphrastic Fiction and Formal Verse.”

--Plenty of brainy folks from Plato to present have defined and redefined ekphrasis. What we want to investigate are its possibilities as a gesture/element/device in the work of contemporary fiction writers. Whether your piece contains an ekphrastic moment or entails an overall ekphrastic response – we want to read it.

--We define poetic form as an adherence to or interpretation of the kinds of patterns that shape poems. We love poems that follow the prescribed structure and we love poems that reinterpret, reinvent, or just make up a structure. In that spirit, send us your sonnets, pantoums, villanelles, kwansabas, bops, and sestinas. Send us your blues poems, your luc-bats, ghazals, and any of the other types of formal verse we don’t have space to list.

Writers whose work is accepted for the issue will be asked to write a brief (100-150 word) statement about their understanding of ekphrasis in contemporary fiction or form in contemporary verse. To submit, please use our online submission system. Info can be found at:

Friday, September 24, 2010

Happy Birthday, Scott!

Yes, today is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birthday, so break out the bathtub gin and raise a glass. In honor of one of my literary idols (have I ever mentioned how much I adore The Great Gatsby?), I’ll buy one lucky, random reader a subscription to a literary journal of their choice (within spitting distance of the $30 range).

Simply send me an email by Monday, September 27, 5 PM EST, that includes:
Your name
Your address
The literary journal you’d like to receive
Please use the subject header: SCOTT
My email address: lesliepietrzyk AT gmail DOT com

The fine print:
*I really do mean “literary journal”: don’t try to get a subscription to Cat Fancy from me—though I’m intrigued that the current issue is running an article promising you can “teach your cat to perform amazing stunts using treats and clicker training.” Amazing? Really?

*If your journal choice is way too expensive, I’m sorry, but I’ll have to let the random finger of fortune move elsewhere…we’re not made of money over here

*I’m in charge here, so all of my decisions are final (wouldn’t this standard wording solve a lot of contract disputes?)

Speaking of Fitzgerald, I recommend this article in The New Yorker about putting together Gatz, the 8-hour show in which actors read the entire text of The Great Gatsby.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Guest in Progress: Deborah Batterman on Ekphrasis

The following piece by Deborah Batterman about how visual art and writing intertwine powerfully resonates with me, as I recently went to a great exhibit at the Hirshhorn Musuem (Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Power, alas, now moving on to Minneapolis, I believe) and just last night saw some wonderful sculpture in show called “Porous Borders” (info here). Inspiration is everywhere!

Words into Images/Images into Words
By Deborah Batterman

Many years ago, on a trip to Japan, I visited a temple, Shisendo, the “House of the Hermit Poet.” Built in 1642 by Ishikawa Jozan, a warrior-turned-scholar of Chinese literature and poet who lived out his years as a recluse, the gardens and building now encompass a Buddhist retreat. On the second level of the building is a single room, “tower for whistling at the moon,” with a 360-degree view of the sky. If that weren’t enough to impress on me the Japanese reverence for poetry (second-story rooms were not typical), something else that has stayed with me from that trip was a more typical detail of traditional Japanese architecture, namely the continuity of interior and exterior space. Movable panels open to the outside garden, in essence framing the view, quintessentially landscape in its wide panorama. It allows for a certain contemplative mood, if not complete serenity. I imagine it gave rise to the picture window.

It strikes me as no accident of nature that the language of thought – insight, visualization, imagination – is rooted in the ability to see. The greater the capacity to visualize, the deeper the insight. The stronger the images we can conjure, the better equipped we are for transcending the bounds of the literal and weaving metaphor into everyday consciousness. For the poet meditating on the lines swirling in the sand of a rock garden or gazing at ten thousand dancing daffodils or entranced by a grasshopper eating sugar from her hand, looking out becomes a way of looking in. By extension, art in any form – painting, photograph, artifacts, sculpture – becomes a source of visual reflection, if not pure inspiration. The lines that echo from Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” – “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter” – are as much an observation about the power of suggestion as they are a reminder of the timeless nature of art.

Ekphrasis, the Greek term for conveying in words what one sees in a work of art, came into being as a device for rhetoricians. Among the illuminating insights Margaret Doody brings to the origins of the novel in her comprehensive tome, The True Story of the Novel, is the way in which ekphrasis has been used in fiction. Literally, “telling at length, description,” ekphrasis initially was a way of exploring art via description. In making a very good case for expanding the definition of the novel to include narratives from ancient times, Doody points to specific works (Daphnis and Chloe by Longus, for example) that used art as the subject or frame for a story. For a poet, pulling images directly from a visual medium would seem to be second nature. For a fiction writer, it’s more a question of pulling from the image an implied narrative or using it as a spinoff for something it suggests. More modern writers, from Fyodor Dostoyevsky to Henry James to Margaret Atwood, have used paintings as a way of reinforcing underlying themes in their novels.

At the heart of Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book is an illuminated scroll, which came to be known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. This much is fact: a Muslim librarian rescued the centuries-old work of art from the ravages of the Bosnian War; a few decades earlier a Muslim scholar managed to keep it from the hands of the Nazis. Early in the book is a description of an illustration from the manuscript, a Passover meal, classic ekphrasis through the eyes of the main character, a rare book expert called in to analyze the manuscript. The rest of the novel is a double helix, Hanna Heath’s story entwined with the fictional reconstruction of the manuscript’s history drawn from artifacts she discovers. By definition, Haggadah translates to “telling.” In Brooks’s telling of a telling, the pigments used for the scroll and the cat-hair brush are as much a part of the tale as the mysteries (a wine stain, a fragment of an insect’s wing, saltwater) that allow her to imagine its journey through time.

To my own thinking, the history of illustrated texts (illuminated or otherwise) suggests that visual art derives as much from the written word as the written word derives from visual art. If William Blake’s Illuminated Books were a deliberate attempt to integrate his printmaking, painting, and poetry (in the process taking charge of the means of production and distribution of his work), their effect is to bring a more universal dimension to the earlier forms of illuminated manuscripts to which they allude. They also stand as exquisite reminders of the ways in which text and image can inform one another. There isn’t one reference to sheep in the lines of “Spring,” yet what child (or adult) isn’t enriched by the image of a mother sitting under a tree, her “Little Boy/Full of joy” reaching out to the grazing sheep? There’s a reason picture books are the first forms of literature we introduce to children.

In a way, there’s something intrinsic in the way the mind works to make sense of an image. Before the written word there existed the picture. An ancient pictogram of a bird and egg together would symbolize “fertility.” Two parallel lines denoted friendship. Symbols – cuneiform, hieroglyphs – became a way of recording transactions that were difficult to maintain orally. At the same time, this cradle of civilization was still being “rocked,” as it were, by myths and epics passed on verbally. Each telling was a re-creation, calling up affective responses in listeners that gave resonance to cultural messages. If memorization, as we think of it today, evokes drills and drudgery, memory in oral cultures was emotionally charged in its connection to the everyday world and its reliance on “rhyme, rhythm, meter, repetition of formulae, redundancy, and . . . highly vivid or visual images conveyed through their sensory qualities.”(1)

It was a world suffused by what Kieran Egan calls the “poetics of memory.”(2) To think in figurative or metaphoric terms was part of our ancestors’ make-up. In today’s world, fast-paced and computer-driven, images are tossed at us left and right. Style often prevails over substance. Reflection gets lost in the shuffle of images, and the link between the visual and the written is in a state of hypertextual blur.

In my poetry and fiction workshops, especially with young students, the biggest challenge is getting them past the rational underpinnings of the scientific-mathematical mode so pronounced in our system of education. They are (for the most part) nothing if not literal-minded, partly a product of being born and bred in the Age of the Visual with its what-you-see-is-what-you-get paradigm. Ironically, getting them to even approach a figurative frame of mind requires giving them something to look at: scenes from magazines and books and calendars, photographs of athletes and musicians and everyday people doing everyday things, slides of the solar system, overheads of famous works of art. If the image strikes me as colorful or provocative or in any way interesting, I bring it in. We explore some together, as I take them through warm-ups that draw on sensory perception. Now it’s their turn to pick and choose, recreate in words whatever picture has struck a chord. With any luck, staring at it will take them to that place beneath the surface of consciousness where the image will reveal its emotional underpinning, maybe shape itself into a story or poem. It’s nothing more, really, than I ask of myself: No Moment Will Ever Be like This One

There are any number of paintings to meditate on in Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917 at MOMA, but one in particular, The Moroccans, would not let me walk away. At first it was the abstraction – the shapes, the colors – that held me but something demanded that I linger and look more closely. The balcony in the top right corner was easy to discern, but where are we, and those large green shapes below the balcony in the foreground, they look too large to be leaves, and yet what else could they be? and that white sphere on top of an alluring patch of purple, is that the figure of a man? If every picture tells a story, I was hooked on this one.

1. Kieran Egan, “The domestication of the sauvage mind,” in Primary Understanding: Education in Early Childhood (New York and London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 66-67.
2. Ibid, pp. 64-68 and 82-87. A slight variation of this article appears in Kieran Egan and Dan Nadaner, eds., Imagination & Education (New York: Teachers College Press, 1988). See “The Origins of Imagination and the Curriculum,” pp. 91-127

About: Deborah Batterman is a fiction writer, essayist, and teaching artist. Her stories and essays appear in print and online journals, including her website/blog, The Things She Thinks About . . . She recently published a new, digital edition of her short story collection, Shoes Hair Nails.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Norman Rush Talks Writing in The Paris Review

Just got the new issue of The Paris Review in the mail, and went straight to the first Art of Fiction Interview with Norman Rush, author of Whites and Mating:

INTERVIEWER: Do you have a philosophy about endings?

RUSH: … It’s a rare reader who doesn’t go to the novel looking for a kind of encouragement to live. No doubt this is because the novel is the rude pretender who stepped into the place of that long-reigning narrative, the religious bedtime story, which, before Darwin and Lyell and those guys, was the only narrative in town. As I write a novel, I’m aware that I’m struggling against the “obligation” to solace. But I want my books to reach only the conclusions that are implicit in the trajectories of their characters. As it happens, both Mating and Mortals have sad outcomes—but optimistic codas. So sue me.

A related question is, when should novels end? I must love big novels, because that’s what I’ve written. It takes a while before you begin to breathe the air the characters breathe. I also like long exchanges, because plots so often turn on nuances in the ways characters understand each other. In moments of madness, I’ve had the fantasy of simultaneously publishing my novels in two versions, Regular and Jumbo. In the book I’m working on now, though, I’m trying to keep everything shorter: shorter scenes, fewer plots, general brevity. But a shorter novel goes against some of my deepest instincts. Dostoyevsky died still intending to write another volume of The Brothers Karamazov. It’s like a knife in my heart that he didn’t.

INTERVIEWER: In your attic office you have a very strange desk with three separate workstations.

RUSH: I use three different typewriters at once, two Royals and one wide-carriage Underwood, all from 1955. I write the main narrative on one of the Royals, while reworking earlier sections on the other Royal, and generating fresh associations on the Underwood. That way, I’m inhabiting the novel in different stages without getting too far from the main stream. I’m not unaware that my system is ludicrous, and something like a prehistoric computer. Once I have twenty-five pages or so, I’ll then use the main Royal to retype the draft for [wife and first reader] Elsa. I do that on yellow sheets, what used to be called “second sheets” in the days of carbon paper—my ancient, beloved Sphinx Saxon Manila 33B. (I can’t get it anymore—if anyone has a stock, I’d be grateful.) Elsa marks anything she wants to discuss, and after that, the draft goes to a typist. We do the final edit together.

RUSH: Oh. Before I start a novel I make a dossier for each character, even minor ones. Life history, curriculum vitae, oddities of culture and taste and background, appearance, gait, voice: it all goes in there. These dossiers can grow quite extensive, and some get completely out of hand. I’ve had to train myself not to keep expanding them endlessly when I should be working on chapters. Even so, with the book I’m working on now I’ve almost driven myself mad, writing dossiers.

INTERVIEWER: How much from each dossier works its way into the novel?

RUSH: Often very little, directly. But absorbing that deep background gives me the sort of conviction about each character that allows me to write.

INTERVIEWER: Do you map your plots beforehand in a similar way?

RUSH: No, just the characters. But the characters write the plot. Their natures do.

Buy the issue here.

Note to the FTC overlords: This issue is from a subscription I paid for with my very own money.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Loving List Magazine

Who doesn’t love a good list? When I saw a call for submissions from List Magazine, I had to check out the publication (brave new world question: is it still called a “publication” when it’s online?). Up right now is a list of How to Say a Few Words in 10 Languages That Will Soon Be Extinct, including this entry:

nyingka ngudi-na wangalk, ngoda ngumban-ju burldi-nyarr Don't you throw the boomerang, or I'll throw one at you." Kayardild, a Tangkic language spoken by eight people on islands off the northwest coast of Queensland, Australia.”

Who can resist? I signed up for a free email subscription; the site is updated every two weeks.

And here’s the call for submissions, in case you’ve got a great list:

List Magazine is a new online literary magazine featuring nonfictional lists by guest experts in science, art, and public spectacle, and other serious persons. We invite submissions at . Send complete lists, partial lists, ideas for lists, and other species of correspondence. Lists can be funny, sad, curious, personal, historical, whatever you like, but they must be true, and they must be your original work. Include a brief bio. We respond within two weeks. Contributors agree to publish their lists under the magazine's creative commons license. We publish one list every two weeks at

Rules for Writing

The glories of Facebook: Someone posted a link to this blog post by thriller writer Joe Konrath…I love this cranky guy and his rules for how NOT to start your story:

"You'll never believe what happened on July 2, 1943." You're right. I won't believe it, because I just stopped reading.”

Read the rest here.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Book Festival Season in DC and VA

Even if you can't attend one of these great DC-area book festivals, do read Elinor Lipman’s amusing guide to the author’s experience at a book festival, here in the Washington Post. From her list of “Things that Can Go Wrong”:

“2. The night and hour of your reading coincide with a critical playoff game or the final episode of the decade's most popular sit-com. In my case, May of 2004: both "Friends" and "Frasier."”

More details on the National Book Festival, September 25: here.
More on Fall for the Book, today through September 24: here.

Free Workshops: October 2

Mark your calendars for these free writing workshops:

Saturday, October 2, 2010
10:00am - 12:30pm

Johns Hopkins University
1717 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Suite 101
Washington, DC

JHU MA in Writing Program: Student Teaching Demonstration Workshops
Coordinated by Rae Bryant

A big thank you to Mark Farrington, JHU MA Fiction Coordinator and Advisor David Everett, JHU MA Senior Associate Program Chair, and the program et al., for offering this FREE workshop afternoon, an opportunity for "Teaching Writing" students to work with other writers, students, alumni and their crafts. Workshop information below.

All workshops run concurrently from 10:30 to 12:30.

Workshops are FREE of charge.

After the workshop, come out for...

Madhatter Dining Saloon & Drinking House, D.C.
1:00 to 2:30 pm

*Madhatter is just around the corner, walking distance, from the JHU DC campus.


An Introduction to the Practice and Craft of Microfiction
Instructors: Rae Bryant and Carrie Stickel
“Writing Prosetry” will familiarize writers of all concentrations with the craft of microfiction—five-hundred to one thousand word stories. Workshop participants will read and discuss effective works of microfiction, discuss artistic goals of microfiction, and explore how scene arcing and tight language can enhance microfiction as well as longer creative works. Participants will create microfiction and study print and online microfiction markets that are welcoming to both vetted and newer writers. “Writing Prosetry” is open to all writers in all concentrations, and will encourage participants to use their specific genre and content area knowledge to write effective and gripping microfiction.

Two Workshops, one on Food in Writing and one on Description in Ethnic and Cultural Stories.
Instructors Gina Vivinetto and Kimberly Shorter
In writing, food can be a cultural signifier, a telling bit of characterization, a powerful metaphor, and more. This introductory workshop encourages writers of all concentrations to consider using food to tell their stories with more depth and richness. Workshop participants will read and discuss examples of food in literature from Charles Dickens to Toni Morrison, and will create and share their own writing using food as a writing tool.

Stories from ethnic or cultural backgrounds can be enriched with vivid and memorable passages about customs, sights, sounds, scents, and textures. Participants will use their senses to produce descriptive writing that allows readers to see, hear, touch, smell and taste the elements of the world that has been created.

PUTTING ON LAYERS: A Workshop on Remembering, Expanding, and Revising Self on Paper
Instructor: Brandi Dawn Henderson
In this workshop, participants will learn how to create rich, robust, immensely interesting characters, as a result of emotional layering. We’ll begin by opening our eyes to the different layers of descriptive possibility available in everyday happenings. We’ll learn how to back out of situations we are close to and look at them from the top, right, left, and underneath. We will walk up so close that our noses are touching them and see what things look like from there. We’ll take note of the taken for granted, record our discoveries, and identify the dominant emotion present within each moment. Then, we’ll begin to layer by identifying other (possibly contradictory) emotions that may have been present within these same moments, in an effort to achieve a greater level of emotional authenticity for our characters. This workshop is designed with a bit of a nonfiction slant, but has something to teach anyone who wishes to attend.

For more information go here and scroll down to “events” on right.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Guest in Progress: Richard Goodman Discovers the Flavor of the Lower East Side

When Richard Goodman told me he had written a new book, I didn’t realize it was something he’d written exactly for ME. Okay, not really—but sort of. Here’s how he describes A New York Memoir:

A New York Memoir is, essentially, a long love letter to New York City. It covers a period of thirty-five years, beginning with my knock-kneed arrival at Port Authority Bus Terminal in 1975 down to the present day. The book consists of fourteen essays that chronicle people I've met and the inspiration I've received as a writer living here. It shows what it's like being young here, growing here as an artist and person, and growing old here. The author Susan Vreeland said the book is "a heart laid bare." I hope so.”

Compare that with one of my primary definitions of The Perfect Book: about New York, about people coming to New York, about New York in the past, about writers/artists in New York, about food in New York.

Since his description didn’t allude to the “food in New York” part of my definition of The Perfect Book, he kindly filled me in with this gorgeous memory of eating in New York:

By Richard Goodman

You are a young man and you’ve come to New York City to live in 1975, specifically to the Lower East Side, on Tenth Street, between Second and Third Avenue. You are basically ignorant of everything and every place. You have a great advantage, though, because ignorance for a young man in New York City back then is, indeed, bliss. The sense of discovery fills all your days. You do not know that the neighborhood you have somehow chosen, quite by a giant stroke of luck, is an old Jewish/Polish/Ukrainian enclave. It is as genuine as it can get outside the mother countries, with flavors and accents and modes as strong and sweet as the smells that emanate from the ethnic shops and restaurants that line Second Avenue. There is a Yiddish theatre on Twelfth Street, one of the last, if not the last, in Manhattan, where people go—and you see them, these slow moving old people, on summer evenings—to hear plays acted in Yiddish. There is a Polish butcher shop between Eighth and Ninth Street where English is rarely spoken and understood, only Polish, where you go for the most mouth-watering ham you’ve ever tasted outside of your native Virginia.

You go to many splendid exotic places—and you realize then and there that exotic has nothing to do with money—like the Ukrainian Coffee Shop on Ninth Street where, on bone-chilling winter days, you devour the supremely restorative hot Borscht and homemade bread slathered in what seems to be butter they churn themselves. You go to the bakery on Ninth Street where three ancient siblings, two brothers and a sister, move in their own deliberate rhythm behind the counter to fetch you the fresh cracked loaves from dark shelves while inquiring about your health. Or—and this is your favorite place of all—you go to the Second Avenue Delicatessen on Tenth Street for all the glories of Jewish food.

No, they didn’t tell you about a place like this in your provincial little beach resort in Southeastern Virginia where you grew up in the late 1940s and 1950s. This wildly theatrical place, with its weary, disheveled, impatient waiters and noisy countermen, serves some of the best food you’ve never had before. You have your first pastrami sandwich here, and your first corned beef sandwich here. Both are masterpieces, stacked high between thick slices of rye bread, the slices of meat laid over one another in a pyramid of nose-arousing beauty. What is pastrami, you wonder. But you don’t dwell on this, because the dark, peppery meat is so wonderfully good and so satisfying that questions are irrelevant. Did you parents know about this and hide it from you? It’s that good, this warm succulent sandwich that sends you to heaven. Yes, you prefer pastrami to corned beef, but the decision is hard to come by, and so you must try first pastrami, then corned beef, on subsequent visits in order to be fair to them both.

When things don’t go well at your job on certain days, you wander into the Second Avenue Deli and order one of these sandwiches to go for comfort. And they do provide comfort, and joy, and optimism. If this is what we can create, you think, your two hands around the sandwich in your little apartment, guiding it toward your trembling mouth, why, all things are possible. You take a bite. Life is good.

[Editor’s note: The Second Avenue Deli has moved to 33rd Street, and is still going strong!]

About: Richard Goodman is the author of French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France and The Soul of Creative Writing. He teaches creative nonfiction at Spalding University's brief residency MFA in Writing program in Louisville, Kentucky. His web page is and you can buy A New York Memoir here.

Also, Richard has written many popular guest posts for the blog, including a piece about writing a writing book (here), an homage to readers (here), and the benefits of writing in longhand (here).

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Residency in Latvia

Got the travel bug, along with the writing bug? This is for you:

Applications for the 2011 Baltic Writers Residency, a funded month-long annual summer residency in Riga, Latvia for poets, playwrights, and writers of fiction working in English are now invited. Neither the writer nor their project need be connected with Latvia.

Both emerging and established writers are encouraged to apply. Recent finalists and winners range from those who have yet to conceive of their first manuscripts, to writers who have extensive publication records, and have been finalists for the National Book Award and numbered in the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40”.

Emma Jones, author of one volume of verse, The Striped World (Faber & Faber, 2009), winner of the Forward Poetry Prize, is this year’s resident, and we strongly encourage other young and emerging writers to apply. Previous winners include Salvatore Scibona and Amity Gaige.

The deadline is December 15th, and we are accepting applications now. Details about the residency, about Riga, and about the application process can be found on the website:

Send your work to:
The Baltic Writing Residency in Latvia
PO Box 17184
Louisville, KY 40217
For more info: balticresidency AT

Short-Short Chapbook Contest

From Rose Metal Press:

Our Fifth Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest submission period begins October 15 and ends December 1, 2010. Our 2010 judge will be Kim Chinquee, and the winner will have his/her chapbook published in summer 2011, with an introduction by the contest judge. During the submission period, please email your 25–40-page double-spaced manuscript of short short stories under 1000 words to us here with a $10 reading fee via Paypal or check.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"Mentor" by Tom Grimes

“Writers always look toward the future. In a sense, we have no past, only whatever time we have remaining to write the perfect book to mask our emptiness—or my emptiness, anyway—the book that won’t defeat us, the book we’d like to be remembered by, if we’re remembered at all. And Frank [Conroy] will be remembered; Stop-Time is a singular achievement. A sui generis insanity governs its style and the very act of its creation. ‘I’d write a chapter and then take four months off and fuck around,’ Frank told me, recalling how he wrote his memoir—after he’d accepted the failure of his first novel, a novel about a priest. I haven’t read it, and I won’t; Frank considered the work so weak that a sense of shame, perhaps, attached itself to the manuscript. Yet, he didn’t destroy it. Boxed and marked, it remains in his archive. I can’t ask Frank now why the pages still exist, but I’m a writer and I know why: he wants it to be read so that this life’s work is understood completely.”

~From Mentor, by Tom Grimes

Over the weekend I read Mentor, a memoir by novelist Tom Grimes about his journey as a writer, which took him through the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a close friendship with the famed director, Frank Conroy. It’s an exploration of friendship and the role of the teacher, and a trip through the vagaries of the publishing world that will make any writer groan with frustration and intimate recognition.

The New York Times review suggested* that writing students avoid this book, but I rather think it should be required reading for anyone considering an MFA or who wants to be a writer. Here it is, honestly, the writing life in all its beautiful glory, agony, confusion, and self-doubt.

Read the Washington Post review: “While there have been plenty of books on how to write, or how to get published, or how to promote your work, as well as a number of triumphalist accounts of "making it," this is a story of what it's like to just miss succeeding. It's also a superb reminiscence of the Iowa Writers' Workshop in the late 1980s and of its celebrated director, Frank Conroy, author of the classic memoir "Stop-Time" (1967).”

Tom Grimes’ website.
An excerpt of the book.
Buy the book from Tin House.

*”Don’t give this forthright and bewildered book to the would-be writer in your life. It might make him or her climb a tall tree and leap from it. You don’t need that on your hands. In any case, I suspect many aspiring writers will find it on their own, and read it between the cracks in their fingers.”

Monday, September 13, 2010

Joe Schuster on Writing Deadlines

As a follow-up to Suzanne Strempek Shea’s piece last week about organizing your writing life, Joe Schuster offers this additional suggestion:

“Deadlines always help me finish something, largely because I spent so many years writing for newspapers and magazines--but I find that deadlines from an external source help more than my saying, ‘I will finish thus and such by so and so.’ Years ago, when I was struggling in the early days of the novel I've been working on and I found I couldn't get myself to sit down to write, I confessed to a friend that I never have a problem finishing something if there's an editor waiting and a check in the offing. I said, ‘It's too bad that no one is paying me to write this.’ So it occurred to me that I could make NOT working on it cost me something.

"I made a deal with him that if I didn't finish 50 pages of the novel in two months, I would donate money to a cause--but realized it couldn't be a cause I supported but one that I didn't like. So I gave him a post-dated check made out to a political party I am not fond of and told him to mail it if I didn't show him the fifty pages by that date. I ended up writing twenty pages the two days before the deadline—and they were surprisingly good and the section has survived a number of revisions—but he never mailed the check.”

(You may remember Joe’s great piece about writers over 40, here.)

C.M. Mayo's Free Podcasts

Writer C.M. Mayo is offering many of her talks about writing and her novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, on free podcasts. The links are at the top of her blog— Selections include:

--12 Tips to Help You Hang in There and Finish (and Sell) Your Novel

--The Writing Life: A Report from the Field Lit Artlantic panel at the Writer's Center, May 22, 2010

--Library of Congress Lecture by C.M. Mayo, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Guest in Progress: Suzanne Strempek Shea on Organizing Your Writing Life

Novelist/memoirist Suzanne Strempek Shea is one of the most generous writers I have ever encountered. Her first novel, Selling the Lite of Heaven, was set in the Polish-American community of western Massachusetts and caught readers’ attention for its charm and humor, and its great story [Publisher’s Weekly called it a “read-in-one-sitting novel”]. The Polish-American community was especially supportive—and happy to see their stories come to the page. The book was a best-seller (due in part to Suzanne’s excellent promotional skills, traveling to Polish festivals and community groups). I read the book at the time it came out and adored it.

Fast-forward five years to unknown, nobody Leslie Pietrzyk with her debut novel, Pears on a Willow Tree, also set in the Polish-American community. One of my friends took it upon himself to secretly email Suzanne on my behalf (thank you forever for that, Russell!), and she immediately contacted me with a comprehensive, organized, annotated list of Polish-American contacts: publications, universities, groups, reviewers, clubs…and so my whirlwind of a speaking tour began. It was an immense act of kindness that I have been trying to pay forward ever since.

She’s my role model in how a writer should handle herself in the writing community: with generosity of spirit in all endeavors.

You can see in Suzanne’s bio below that she’s published eight books, which will give you an idea of her range and wide interests; I admire the way she is always sending her work into new ground. I love her writing, and so has every single person to whom I’ve handed a copy of one of her books saying, “You must read this.” And so, now: You must read this, Suzanne’s suggestions for organizing your writing life:

At a recent residency for the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program, I was asked to be on a panel of writers discussing the habits that made them highly organized. Here’s what I had to contribute to that panel, and I’m shaking my head as I send these to Leslie as it’s been at least several years since she asked me to contribute to her fascinating blog. Well, we can’t always be perfect. But we can try to do our best. And in doing so, here’s perhaps the first rule of being highly organized: deal with what’s at hand. I received that request to be on the panel, so I sat down and wrote the following:

I write five days a week at the least. It’s almost like a job. Except it’s a whole lot of fun and I don’t have an idiot boss to deal with. It’s an 8 to 4 thing with me, with a break for lunch with The Young and the Restless - because no matter how miserable you are, the people in Genoa City always have it worse. I split the pre- and post-Y&R hours into distinct sections, which I’d advise for anyone involved in various types of work. Ages ago I heard one of my literary heroes, Roddy Doyle, describe his workday like that and it’s worked for me. Roddy said he wrote his fiction in the morning and drama in the afternoons. I started my career writing fiction, so I’d write fiction in the morning and then spend the afternoon drumming up things to do with that fiction – finding places to read, signing books, thanking the people who’d already had me read and sign. In the morning I have my best energy, so I used that on my more important work at the time – my fiction. In the afternoon, I tended to the commercial side of my job. Along the way I added freelance and then non-fiction books to the mix. My day now begins with whatever is the most pressing project, or whatever’s posing a difficulty. If you put that off, it either doesn’t get tended to or will be done in a rushed manner. So I split my day, still save the tail end for correspondence and other businessy stuff, maybe down to an hour of that a day now. That’s about seven hours, with several trips downstairs to start the kettle for tea.

I know I’m done because I’m only good for so long. There have been times I couldn’t stop a particular section of writing from happening, or I might return to the computer after dinner in order to meet a deadline, but I’m not so awake in the evening and night, so I do my best work in the energized parts of my day. Others might work by feeling. I just go by the clock.

As for maintaining discipline, 15 years ago I left my newspaper job to write books and articles fulltime at home. I quickly realized that no little elves were going to come along and do the work for me. That if I got up to eat bon bons for two hours, that was two hours lost. The big thing is I love what I do. If I had to sit at my desk and add numbers, which I’m horrible at and hate, I would not have any discipline. But the excitement of getting to tell a story – real or made up – and try to get it into the world, and now that some of my work is out there and to have folks waiting for other work, that’s a great motivator, too. The other is this is my part of the household income now. I got a freelance assignment right before I was leaving for a recent trip. I had no time to prepare, to interview, to write, but I got it all done. Because I needed to pay the mortgage that month. My husband is now between jobs so that’s all the more motivation, and another factor in my really pushing to get book proposals out there, to get queries to magazines and newspapers, to accept assignments even when I’m nearly out the door to do something else.

As for dealing with writer’s block, I would advise being a reporter. When I was in that line of work, I could never tell my editor that I had no muse that day, that I didn’t feel like writing, had no ideas. I had a job to do, stories to find or assignments to go out on. And I did. That just got me into the mode of getting up, sitting down and writing. If I am stuck in a story, I go to a different part of it or work on different character, or set a goal of a certain amount of words before I can go downstairs and have a chocolate left over from Halloween. I’m knocking wood as I write this, but I haven’t had dry periods or gotten stuck, and I really think that’s from having a job in which each and every day I had to sit down and write – even if I were sick, bummed out, distracted, wasn’t crazy about the subject.

Negotiating time with my significant other isn’t difficult because my husband was a reporter for 37 years and he knows it takes time and effort to write. But, aside from that, I’m blessed with being married to someone who thinks what I do is the coolest thing, and has given me every bit of support every day of this adventure. Most of my books actually came from my talking about something and Tommy saying, “You should write about that.” He never gives me a hard time about being busy, or gone, or both. I can’t imagine doing any of this without him.

Generating ideas and momentum also takes me back to what I learned in my reporting days. Sometimes I had assignments. Most time I had to come up with my own story ideas. I always had folders full. I’m usually working way ahead of myself in my mind – maybe I seem to be focused on one project, but have a runway full of others just waiting to take off. Because I work in fiction, non-fiction and journalism, I have files for book ideas, magazine pieces, news stories, and because I work regularly for a few publications, I always have the gears turning in my head and antennae up as to what might be a good story for this publication or that one.

Keep your gears greased, share your home with a loving and understanding being, fill those file folders and sit down and do your work every day, every day, and you can’t miss! ~~Suzanne Strempek Shea

About: Suzanne Strempek Shea is the author of five novels: Selling the Lite of Heaven, Hoopi Shoopi Donna, Lily of the Valley, Around Again, and Becoming Finola, published by Washington Square Press. She has also written three memoirs, Songs From a Lead-lined Room: Notes - High and Low - From My Journey Through Breast Cancer and Radiation; Shelf Life: Romance, Mystery, Drama and Other Page-Turning Adventures From a Year in a Bookstore; and Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith, all published by Beacon Press.

Winner of the 2000 New England Book Award, which recognizes a literary body of work's contribution to the region, Suzanne began writing fiction in her spare time while working as reporter for the Springfield (Massachusetts) Newspapers and the Providence Journal (Rhode Island). Her freelance work has appeared in Yankee magazine, The Bark magazine, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Organic Style, Golf World and ESPN the Magazine.

A member of the faculty at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast
MFA program in creative writing and writer-in-residence at Bay Path College
in Longmeadow, Mass., Suzanne lives in Bondsville, Mass., with her husband,
Tommy, a columnist for The Republican newspaper in Springfield, Mass., and
their two dogs, Tiny and Bisquick.

Suzanne's website is and her blog is Her essays regularly are
published on Tommy's columns are found at

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Dates of Note: Reading, Writing, & Rewards

September 16:
Sam Kean, one of my former workshop students, will be reading from his new, New York Times best-selling book The Disappearing Spoon on September 16, at Georgetown University at 6 p.m., at the Georgetown University Bookstore. The book is about the Periodic Table of the Elements, so I’m certainly unable to claim I taught him anything he knows, but it is always nice to see a former student do so well!

About the book: “The Periodic Table is one of our crowning scientific achievements, but it’s also a treasure trove of passion, adventure, betrayal, and obsession. The fascinating tales in The Disappearing Spoon follow carbon, neon, silicon, gold, and every single element on the table as they play out their parts in human history, finance, mythology, conflict, the arts, medicine, and the lives of the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them.”

Review from the New York Times
Sam Kean’s website, including an excerpt of the book

October 1:
This is the deadline for applying for the Converse College Low-Residency MFA Program if you wish to enter the program in January. I teach there, so of course I have some self-interest, but let me also note some recent news from my distinguished colleagues:

Fiction writer Marlin Barton has a story in the forthcoming edition of Best American Short Stories; poet Sarah Kennedy’s book Home Remedies is a finalist for the Library of Virginia Award; and Dan Wakefield’s memoir New York in the Fifties is one of my favorite books about, well, New York, and has been listed here as one of the books to read if you’re interested in delving deeper into the “Mad Men” era and what preceded it.

All this and more await you at Converse—including the world famous Beacon Drive-In! Application details are here.

December 1:
This is the deadline for applying to the Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award, administered by McSweeney’s, and given to a young woman writer in honor of fiction writer Amanda Davis. I knew her only barely at Bread Loaf, but Amanda Davis was a gorgeous force of nature and this award is an apt tribute to her memory. Application details are here.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Link Corral: Franzen in DC, Gatz in NYC & More

A few items of note—writing-related and not—to ease us into the abruptly energetic environment of autumn:

--Finally a use for the Kindle et al: I was fortunate enough to stay for a long weekend at The Breakers, a historic resort in Palm Beach, Florida, and fortunate enough to see all the hurricanes sidle by at a distance. However, they sent quite a bit of wind our way—25 mph, which doesn’t sound like much unless you’re trying to sit at a beach or pool. Still, guests were intrepid and kept at it, trying to read books and magazines in the gale. Happiest readers I saw? Those reading their Kindles. No page-flapping there.

--A new food discovery:
Avocado “fries.” Wedges of avocados dredged in a cornmeal batter and deep-fried, served with a light cilantro-jalapeno-mayonnaise...creamiest, richest avocados ever! “Resort” doesn’t have to mean spa food! Also, why don’t more restaurants offer freshly baked chocolate chip cookies for dessert? So easy and yummy!

--Franzen frenzy: I’m not going into all that now, but I will note that Jonathan Franzen is coming to DC to read in the PEN/Faulkner reading series (2/18/11), and if you are dying to see him read, you might want to get your tickets now. There are a lot of other great writers coming this year, so do check out the site here.

--For poets and writers with—ahem—titling issues: Here’s an excellent interview with poet Anna Leahy who discusses the process of putting together her first poetry collection, Constituents of Matter: “I had sent out an earlier version of the manuscript for a couple of years. That manuscript had been a finalist, but I took it out of circulation for more than a year, during which I had an especially intense summer of revision. I came up with the new title, Constituents of Matter, which led to a re-seeing. The Wick Poetry Prize was in the first batch of a half-dozen competitions to which I sent Constituents of Matter. So, it seemed to take ages to find a publisher, but it actually was picked up quickly once I had figured out how to think about the concept of book.” Read the rest here.

--Admit it…you’re curious: The Public Theatre in NYC is presenting GATZ, an enactment of The Great Gatsby, which takes about six and a half hours. Here’s the info from the website:

“One morning in the low-rent office of a mysterious small business, an employee finds a copy of The Great Gatsby in the clutter of his desk. He starts to read it out loud, and doesn’t stop. At first his coworkers hardly notice. But after a series of strange coincidences, it’s no longer clear whether he’s reading the book or the book is transforming him.

“One of the most exciting and improbable accomplishments in theater in recent years” (The New York Times), GATZ is a theatrical and literary tour de force, not a retelling of the Gatsby story but an enactment of the novel itself. Over the course of 6 1/2 hours, Fitzgerald’s American masterpiece is delivered word for word, startlingly brought to life by a low-rent office staff in the midst of their inscrutable business operations. The cast of 13 actors includes Scott Shepherd (The Wooster Group’s Hamlet).

"GATZ will be presented as a marathon theatrical event, with two intermissions and a dinner break, four times per week: September 26 – November 14, 2010"

Promise you’ll tell me if you go!


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