Thursday, October 28, 2010

Guest in Progress: Carollyne Hutter on the Art of the Impossible

I love that my post inspired this excellent piece by writer Carollyne Hutter. Truly words to take forward with you today and onwards:

Doing the Impossible
By Carollyne Hutter

I want to follow up on Leslie’s excellent piece on Not Failing Better*, but Simply Failing by discussing doing the impossible. As writers, we are often told through articles, friends, writers, and others, that many things we want to do are impossible, whether it’s a style issue or being successful in a field.

We need to face these walls of so-called impossible and then tear them down. This happened recently in another area of my life.

When I was in college, I visited my brother in Germany and signed up for German classes there. Before I began the classes, my brother said: “It’s impossible for a nonnative German speaker to write well in German. You and I will never be able to do it.” Being that this came from my older, wiser brother, I took the words to heart.

When I returned to US, I was able to place in advanced German classes, where I excelled at speaking and reading German. But not at writing German. How could I? I knew it was an impossible task.

I continued my academic German studies through graduate studies in international relations at Johns Hopkins. Again I excelled at speaking and reading German. But not at writing German. How could I? I knew it was an impossible task.

This summer, I met an old friend for coffee in Munich. I hadn’t seen him in years and he told me he’s now working for the city of Munich.

I nodded encouragingly at him, thinking how I would enjoy speaking German regularly. But then panic seized me. My friend is British; his mother tongue is English. If he works for the city of Munich, at the very least he has to write memos or e-mails in German. The impossible task!

When I asked him whether he has to write in German, he nonchalantly responded, “Yes.”

Then he shrugged his shoulders and said, “That’s no big deal.” He paused for a moment and said. “I took classes.”

I stared at him and thought: I took classes, too. From the best universities in the nation. But the reason why I never conquered written German was because in my mind it was always impossible.

And with my friend’s words, an obstacle, a huge wall, which had stood in the path before I even started on the journey, was removed.

As writers, we all encounter these impossible walls. Close your eyes. I bet you can think of at least three things that someone told you or you read were impossible for a writer to do. Write them down.

Now think of three people who overcame these obstacles. Here’s what I came up with:

1. Impossible: You can’t be a good fiction writer without great descriptions.
Who overcame this: The Irish writer Roddy Doyle has minimal writing with almost no descriptions, and yet he creates vivid scenes.

2. Impossible: You can’t be a good writer and be good at technology.
Who overcame this: My friend Rebecca Flowers is an enormously talented writer and loves technology; she’s totally comfortable with it. She even produces her own radio pieces.

3. Impossible: You can’t be a good nonfiction and fiction writer.
Who overcame this: Ernest Hemingway was both a successful journalist and a trailblazing novelist.

So next time someone tells you that it’s impossible for a writer to do this or that, just shrug your shoulders like my friend did and say, “That’s no big deal.”

And remember what the Queen told Alice in Alice in Wonderland:

Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." (From Through the Looking Glass).

About: When she’s not thinking of impossible things to do, Carollyne Hutter is a freelance writer/editor/communications manager in the Washington, DC area, specializing in environmental, health, and international development topics. She also enjoys writing fiction for adults and children (early readers, picture books, and young-adult novels). Please visit her website— — to learn more. You can contact Carollyne at

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

New York City, No Holds Barred: Part 2

More about our recent vacation….

First, just a quick note about yesterday’s post: going to the Metropolitan Opera does not have to bust your budget. If you’re willing to wait in line, there are same-day rush tickets available in the orchestra that cost only $20. And there’s a standing area. And obstructed view areas. However you get there, do get there.

Also to note: Did you notice that we skipped dinner on the night of the opera? That’s another reason we don’t each weigh 1000 pounds right now.

And, on with the self-indulgent rest of it:

I wanted to see the Abstract Expressionist exhibit at MoMA—Steve didn’t think he wanted to see it, but we decided that he did. It was nice—some amazing pictures (duh)—but, to be honest, I was slightly disappointed. This is one of my favorite periods of art, so I was expected to be wowed. Part of the problem is inherent in these sorts of exhibits: TOO MANY PEOPLE! It was very crowded, and I’m happy for people to be enjoying and learning about masterworks…but I’m less enthused about people pushing their way through, pointing and quickfire snapping their cellphones at each painting, one after the other. Really? Is that the best way to experience art? Ugh. Then Steve wanted to see some photographs, and I was very pleased to stumble into a wonderful exhibit about female photographers. Some really amazing stuff—and shameful that I was unfamiliar with many of the photographers. I would recommend that show for sure.

Lunch (finally!)—well, okay, there had been a babka muffin from Barney Greengrass to tide us over (and the bowl of hotel chocolates). We went down to the Village to the original John’s Pizza (established 1929), which was as excellent as we’d remembered. Medium or large? You can guess—and we ate the whole thing!

Time to walk off our lunch. We strolled over to the new High Line Park, built on old, elevated train tracks. What a masterful concept, and a beautiful park. I’m no gardening expert, but the grasses and flowers seemed exceptionally well-chosen. No dogs and no bikes made for a pleasant strolling experience. The park is only partially completed at this point, and I’m looking forward to a return visit.

More walking—all the way back to midtown. (A fashion note: black boots everywhere.) Then a stop at Zibetto Espresso Bar (truly, just a tiny shop and a bar—no tables) for great espresso drinks. I’m not normally a big coffee drinker, but even I could tell this was several cuts above the rest. I liked that there was only one size—as in, “this is the proper size for a cappuccino, not that giant behemoth sold in the chains.” No soy milk, no half this, and literally I was afraid to order decaf—which didn’t matter, because such a pleasing size, and such good coffee, did not turn me jittery.

I went to one of my secret fantasy stores, Bergdorf Goodman (founded in 1899), where I was eyed by the security guards, but I still had a lovely time, especially when I discovered the Christmas shop and had a fun time selecting a black and white cookie ornament, which the very kind sales clerk put in a beautiful silver box, in a lavender shopping bag. Take that, security people! I’m not a shoplifter, but a SHOPPER! And it was fun to spy on the woman shopping for a Judith Leiber bag…I like the tiger, myself. (Note: Very nice bathrooms, and a cute little restaurant/bar on the seventh floor with windows overlooking the park. I’ll be back!) And what store still has a stationery department (bookmarks = $15)?

Back to the room, and a little champagne before dolling up for our big dinner at La Grenouille (opened in 1962), a French restaurant in midtown famous for its flowers and high society vibe. I will say that walking into the packed townhouse dining room—noisy, powerful feeling—even though we looked great (if I do say so)—was a bit intimidating. But the restaurant people were gracious, and the minute I got my first dish—Les Quenelles de Brochet "Lyonnaise" (like a lush, fish mousse, made of pike and about a quart of cream), served on an eye-catching black plate—I relaxed, because the food was AMAZING! So rich and creamy…ummmm, I lapped it all up—and the following lamb chops and Grand Marnier soufflĂ© were also incredible. Steve had foie gras and then the best Dover sole on earth (really; so moist and flawless). His calvados soufflĂ© was less successful, but fortunately there was a “free” plate of cookies to ease the pain. Such a delectable dinner and experience.

Back to the King Cole Bar, where we almost witnessed a bar fight!

The next morning…and I’m not sure I dare reveal this, but Steve is a secret fan of "The Today Show" (though he’s the kind of fan who more times than not complains about how vapid the show is…even as he keeps watching; he can also do an excellent Ann Curry imitation). So, we didn’t kill ourselves getting up early, but we got up early for us and went over to Rockefeller Plaza (where I did my “30 Rock” opening credit imitation too many times to count). We hung out with the crowds screaming “We want Matt!” and were almost on TV; the camera swerved away just before it got to us, though we didn’t take it personally. And we saw Matt and Natalie come outside for one segment.

Then we took the super-fast elevator 70 stories up to the Top of the Rock, a great place to view the skyscrapers, as there are several outside observation levels and way shorter entrance lines than at the Empire State Building. The day was clear, and the friendly guard pointed out the Tappan Zee Bridge way off in the distance—something he said wasn’t often visible.

I have a secret fascination with Kathie Lee and Hoda, so we watched their show getting filmed for a short time; Kathie Lee got her hair sprayed about every two seconds. Then we couldn’t remember where our favorite Japanese pastry shop was located, but happily we were steered to a branch of Magnolia Bakery, where we bought some cupcakes for later. Another stop for cappuccino at “our” place, and then back to the hotel to get ready for our late lunch.

Steve had been to Keen’s Steakhouse (since 1885) for business lunches several times and wanted me to see it. It’s a manly place, with thousands and thousands (yes, really) of clay pipes hanging from the ceiling. Dark and woody, it’s just the place for a hunk of meat and a stiff drink. I had the “legendary” mutton chop, which looked like something Wilma Flintstone would cook up for Fred—and it was delicious, though a bit tricky to manage. Steve got a giant filet. We were too stuffed for dessert, but also too curious to pass up Red Berry Bibble—which was a light, lovely compote of strawberries, raspberries, and cherries and a teeny layer of cream. We really didn’t want to say goodbye, so we stepped into the adjoining bar, enticed by the menu of MORE THAN 250 single malt scotches!! The very helpful bartender steered us to some good selections, and we enjoyed a relaxing hour or so, drowsing, sipping, and digesting.

Walking, poking in stores, and finally back to the room to relax before heading out to the late show at The Algonquin Hotel (now owned by the Marriott, but the lobby cat is still there!). Playing at the Oak Room was Karen Akers, someone I’d longed to see back in the days when she was a regular in DC. And here she was, singing a tribute to Rodgers and Hart! There is definitely something to that whole spontaneity thing…. Lucky for us (but not for her, probably) there were only about 15 people in the room, so it was like having a private concert. Especially memorable were her versions of “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “I Wish I Were in Love Again.” She was fantastic! (Note that there was no dinner, only sharing a very embarrassing cheese plate with cheese that would be better off in a mousetrap.)

Oh, no…the dreaded day of departure. Packing, finishing up the bowl of chocolates, stealing all the very cool St. Regis swizzle sticks, and then one last New York meal: Shun Lee Palace (established 1971), an elegant Chinese restaurant with excellent, caring service. Steve is not always a fan of Chinese food, but he loves this place. We shared some steamed dumplings, a one-person size portion of Beijing duck and something called Crispy Prawns with XO Sauce—all of it fantastic and beautifully presented.

But wait: One last stop before hopping on the train. Carnegie Deli (opened in 1937) for four black and white cookies and some rye bread to take home. Outside on the sidewalk, quick discussion and a return trip inside: cookies, bread AND also now please add a pound of corned beef. Finally, our trip was complete.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

New York, No Holds Barred: Part One

Warning: This is probably an extremely self-indulgent post, written primarily so I don’t forget every last detail of this trip. Feel free to skip, skim, and mock my narcissism.

First, I had to swear to my husband that I would not plan the trip to death, that there had to be room for spontaneity. It seemed like a novel, rather exciting approach, so I agreed. One the other hand, there were some big items on our list that would require a certain inflexibility in terms of timing. So I had to give up on the idea of squeezing in a bunch of visits with New York friends: this was our big vacation of the year, and our mission was to relax. Yes, relax: in the biggest, busiest city in the country.

To that end, we each cashed in five years worth of American Express reward points to stay at the St. Regis Hotel. Built in 1904, the building (at Fifth & 55th) is beautiful, and the rooms are plush. Service is beyond extraordinary: butlers! Fresh fruit every day! Tea/coffee service at wake-up! A bowl of hotel chocolates! Soft silence in the hallways and rooms; I never even saw a housekeeping cart, and yet the room was freshened twice daily. And—very cool—a TV that rose up out of a console that could be flipped around and be viewed from bed or from the silk-upholstered sofa. (Unfortunately, my TV watching was not very classy, as I became obsessed with a show on the Travel Channel called "Man v. Food," in which a husky guy travels around, taking on food challenges like eating seven pound burritos or 29 pieces of fried catfish.)

While checking in, Cal Ripken came up to the front desk. Yes, Ironman CAL RIPKEN, my baseball idol. Steve recognized him, and I’m not usually starstruck but this time I totally was, so I had to say something. My clever line: “Excuse me, can I just say hi to you?” He shook my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Cal.” Oh, so endearing….! I (cleverly) said, “I know.” I would have been content with that exchange, but then he said, “Are you checking in?” I said we were and, emboldened, asked if he was checking out, and he said he was in for the baseball games (Yankees vs. Texas in the ALCS). I asked him who he was rooting for, and he (probably desperate now to get back to his room) said that as an analyst he couldn’t have favorites. I (way too emboldened now) said, “I know what’s in your heart.” I mean, honestly—there’s no way Mr. Oriole could be cheering for the Yankees! No way!! He sort of laughed (nervously?) and said that he was hoping for a good series. So diplomatic…and off he went (relieved?). I spent the next six hours and four days reliving the experience with poor (patient) Steve.

Then we headed to the Grand Central Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station for a late lunch: oysters on the half shell, fried clams, and lobster stew. It all tasted fine at the time—especially the oysters—but in retrospect, it was probably our least successful meal.

Walked around—walked around some more—and after a few episodes of "Man v. Food," went off to the original P.J. Clarke’s for an amazing cheeseburger. Steve got Brussels sprouts, but with all that bacon we can hardly call that healthy, and we shared an order of home fries. It takes years of cooking to get grease that good (established 1884)….followed by a quick drink at our famous hotel bar, the King Cole Bar. (You can see a picture of the mural behind the bar here.)

A late morning and then off to Barney Greengrass, The Sturgeon King (since 1908), on the Upper West Side for scrambled eggs, onions, and smoked salmon & sturgeon and a sandwich on a bagel: salmon, sturgeon, cream cheese, onion, and tomato. I wouldn’t normally get the tomato, expecting that it would dilute the flavor of the smoked fish, but the tone in the waiter’s voice made me think I needed that tomato, and, actually, I did. The combo was perfect! We had a brief chat with The Sturgeon King himself—maybe? Definitely an owner type—who, alas, didn’t share any juicy tidbits to share about Jon Hamm, who, with Tina Fey, filmed a scene of "30 Rock" in the restaurant. (Note: They ship their fish!)

More walking (this is why we didn’t get totally fat on this trip!)—winding our way through Central Park, landing at the (Model) Boat Pond (you might remember this from a fabulous and funny chapter in the book Stuart Little). Knowing Steve had a secret desire to captain his own remote controlled boat, I marched us over to the rental area and we quickly were the proud “owners” of Number 55. Sails snapping in the light breeze, Steve quickly picked up the skills needed (trickier than it looks!) to send the lovely 55 up and down the pond, and even engaged in some subtle racing with a 10-year-old boy. (Steve was victorious, and quite pleased about it.) Proving that boys are always boys, he also chased some ducks with the boat for a moment. I wasn’t such a good captain, as my time at the wheel led to the boat sitting dully in the middle of the pond.

And off to Lincoln Center, for our backstage tour of the Metropolitan Opera—which I TOTALLY recommend. The ninety-minute tour was incredible: we learned about the magnificent sets, sat in a dressing room (not that fancy), watched costumes being sewn, and peeked into ongoing rehearsals. I didn’t know what to expect, so it was sort of amusing to see the crowded, messy hallways—boxes of fake wine goblets everywhere, a stack of swords, racks of elegant dresses jammed next to dusty boxes.

And then…the event of a lifetime: going to the Metropolitan Opera for the first time! We raced home and fancied ourselves up, then got to Lincoln Center with plenty of time to have a bit of champagne and admire the lobbies (and the people). It was all beautiful…they say everything is beautiful at the ballet, but I think it might be even more beautiful at the opera. We had excellent seats for La Boheme, featuring tenor Vittorio Grigolo, another “the new Pavarotti,” as Rudolfo, and it just was all AMAZING…amazing. There was a gasp when before the orchestra started, a woman came onstage to announce that the woman who played Mimi had a cold…but she was going to sing anyway. Whew. I’m not an expert, but she sounded great to me. Sets (30 years old!)—stunning. Music—stunning (duh). Singing—stunning. Fancy-looking couple sitting across from us wearing couture and expensive plastic surgery—stunning. Night as a whole—stunning. Just…all…stunning. As noted, I’m no expert, but the crowd seemed to feel that the charismatic tenor Vittorio Grigolo was something special—and I totally agree. An expensive thing to do, yes—but TOTALLY worth every penny.

To be continued…

Monday, October 25, 2010

Artsmith Artist Residency; S.O.'s Welcome!

Just got back from a fabulous trip to New York and am catching my breath. More on that later—much more, probably more than anyone will want to hear!—but for now, this residency sounds great (and note that spouses/significant others are allowed to attend!!):

The fifth annual Artsmith Artist Residency is open for applications until November 1, 2010, for the upcoming residency the week of February 25 to March 4, 2011. The residency includes lodging and continental breakfast on Orcas Island in Washington State.

To learn more about the residency and to apply, please visit:

Friday, October 22, 2010

Notebook: Heroes vs. Villains

What happens to the notes that you take at all the ba-jillion writing conferences/talks you attend? If you’re like me, they sit around, unlooked at for years. I’ve decided to spend the week digging up some of those notes and pulling out some nuggets. These are paraphrased (not direct quotations), attributed as closely as I can, considering I’m pulling them from scribbled notes.

From the “Crime Wave: Life on the Street” panel at the Virginia Festival for the Book in Charlottesville, 2008…no panelists noted, sorry!

Villains don’t realize they’re the “bad guys”

Villains are proactive, heroes are not

There’s a fine line between the hero and the villain

[typing this made me realize that I absolutely didn’t know how to spell “villain”!]

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Notebook: Effective Memoir

What happens to the notes that you take at all the ba-jillion writing conferences/talks you attend? If you’re like me, they sit around, unlooked at for years. I’ve decided to spend the week digging up some of those notes and pulling out some nuggets. These are paraphrased (not direct quotations), attributed as closely as I can, considering I’m pulling them from scribbled notes.

From AWP 2008, a panel called “Truth Is Fiction, Fiction Is Truth”; inexplicably, I didn’t write down the names of any of the panelists…oops!

“the” truth vs. “my” truth

Obligation of voice: not to “sound” like anything (i.e. quirky) but to make deeper and deeper sense of things; a penetrating attention to experience

The “literal facts” of memoir are not the point—the point is the self-discovery taking place in the narrator

The memoirist’s obligation is to make sense; credit is to the art, not the life

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Notebook: Jay Parini on Place

What happens to the notes that you take at all the ba-jillion writing conferences/talks you attend? If you’re like me, they sit around, unlooked at for years. I’ve decided to spend the week digging up some of those notes and pulling out some nuggets. These are paraphrased (not direct quotations), attributed as closely as I can, considering I’m pulling them from scribbled notes.

From Jay Parini’s talk at the F. Scott Fitzgerald conference in Rockville, MD, no date—maybe five years ago?

Place is not just an accumulation of details, but also the culture and grasp of the way place can affect the mood

Sense of place is often rooted in early childhood memories

Robert Frost: “locality gives art”—a line in a notebook…Frost was born and raised in San Francisco, CA!

Attitude of a writer: be perpetually stupid and dumb; wake up like a child and be amazed at what you see

We are where we are—which is often where we’ve been and where we’d like to go

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Notebook: Francine Prose on Reading Like a Writer

What happens to the notes that you take at all the ba-jillion writing conferences/talks you attend? If you’re like me, they sit around, unlooked at for years. I’ve decided to spend the week digging up some of those notes and pulling out some nuggets. These are paraphrased (not direct quotations), attributed as closely as I can, considering I’m pulling them from scribbled notes.

From Francine Prose’s keynote speech at the American Independent Writers Conference in Washington, DC, 2007:

--keep a mental rolodex of what writers do well, i.e. the party scene in Joyce’s “The Dead”

--examples of what to look for when you read:
Balance between:
--dialogue and thought
--scene and summary

--when you find yourself thinking “I can’t do this,” find an author who did that and see how

--isn’t the point to do what no one else has done?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Notebooks: How to Choose What to Read at Your Reading

What happens to the notes that you take at all the ba-jillion writing conferences/talks you attend? If you’re like me, they sit around, unlooked at for years. I’ve decided to spend the week digging up some of those notes and pulling out some nuggets. These are paraphrased (not direct quotations), attributed as closely as I can, considering I’m pulling them from scribbled notes.

David Everett in a talk about how to give a good reading; undated, but maybe 5 years ago. I don’t remember the name of the conference, but it was held at Towson University in Towson, MD:

On selecting what to read when you’re giving a reading:
--the first person works well
--not too much dialogue; not too many characters
--little to no set-up necessary
--action is key
--defined scene/section is preferable

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Guest in Progress: Rebecca Thomas, on Finding Books to Read

After reading last week’s anecdote about how one reader happened to find a book, Rebecca Thomas emailed to suggest that I pursue the topic: how do readers find books? She then rattled off a paragraph or so about the many different ways she looks for the books she reads…and voila! Here, obviously, was the right person to handle the issue!

In Search of a Good Book to Read
By Rebecca Thomas

I read a lot. I mean a lot. People often tell me, “Oh, I read a lot, too.” Then I start talking to them and realize they really don’t read a lot. They just read. I mean, it’s always nice to talk with people about what they’re reading, but in general, most people are reading a book every couple of weeks or so, and often as not, they’re reading what everyone else is currently reading, give or take an exception or two. Yeah, they are reading, and they’re reading good stuff, don’t get me wrong. But generally speaking, their need to have a ready supply of books to read is nowhere near as pressing as mine, I find. Which is disappointing, though I don’t say anything. In fact, at the risk of sounding like a reading snob (which I am not!), I’m just usually somewhat desperate to make sure my reading stack is high enough, I am always pleasantly surprised to find someone who actually recommends something I haven’t read and might actually want to check out!

I’m not really an overly adventuresome or eclectic reader by any means. Admittedly, I read mostly fiction, and much of it is in a limited vein, I suppose some people would say. Nonetheless, since I read a lot (which I know I keep saying, sorry), I realized a few years ago I had to figure out how to feed my ever-present need for something to read. I couldn’t keep relying on books simply to appear when I was ready. I tried keeping a little list of books to look for when shopping, titles I’d discovered among various sources ranging from the latest Washington Post Book World review—(sigh…remember Book World!? And I subscribed for years to the NY Times Book Review, but when the annual price reached nearly $100, I gave it up, tough as it was)—to something someone in the office mentioned. But this willy-nilly approach wasn’t very satisfactory.

So I’ve made book finding an ongoing, active undertaking. Nowadays I usually (still, not always) have a decent size stack to be read next to the bed, rarely feeling like I’ve got nothing at all in the works—which is really a terrible feeling.

I asked Leslie to get Work in Progress readers to share ideas about how they suss out books to read, and she suggested I lead the discussion. So here’s a few things I do to discover possible books that will appeal to me …. - I know, I know, everybody knows about But it’s a source of ideas not to be overlooked. I frequently peruse lists produced by people and linked to the pages of books I look up. For instance, if I’m interested in a novel about WWII, invariably there are related lists on my chosen book page like “Best WWII Love Stories,” or “25 Top WWII Novels” or “Family Sagas You’ve Never Heard Of”… things like that. I’ve found many first-rate reads in this manner, books I decided to try, often out of print, not available at the library, yet easily acquired via

Another suggestion for following book lists is to use the websites for other English speaking countries (e.g., UK, Canada, Australia) to see what those readers recommend. I like British authors, whose works are generally hard to find in the US. So looking at the other amazon sites is helpful because their lists and readers are different than those in the US.

Also not to be overlooked on is the “Hot New Releases” category, featuring both current and forthcoming titles to consider.

Publishers Weekly - Two possibilities for discovering books through PW. First, the website itself is chocked with stuff about books…books currently out and books coming out. And of course, you can subscribe to the weekly print magazine. What I really like, though, is the free e-letters (see top of the home page to subscribe) on the following topics (subscribe to one or all): PW Daily, cooking, religion, children and comics. I subscribe to the e-letter on upcoming books about religion, which comes biweekly. It covers fiction and nonfiction titles, with short articles that give me enough info to figure out if I want to follow up with a closer look. - I recently stumbled on this website, which bills itself as “a community of bibliophiles.” You can sign up for membership to access the entire site. Admittedly, I have yet to dig into it deeply, but I’ve bookmarked it and expect to use it because there is great material here to amplify my reading experience.

Bookmarks Magazine – a bimonthly print magazine for $27.95 annually. I subscribed earlier this year and have had a couple of issues. I like it so far…gives me decent ideas for current and forthcoming books. (FYI-- I picked up my first issue at one of the local bookstores.)

Book This is the free monthly book review section produced for Books A Million bookstores ( I like the print version because I can scan it fairly quickly for reviews of a variety of books. Though they are mostly of the very popular, broad appeal ilk, I still get some good ideas. The Book Page web site itself offers way more material than the print edition (though I confess to not having looked at the website till writing this piece!). Again, a great source for titles. The other nice thing is the coupons and discounts you get via email as a Books a Million member (not a plug, just a mention). Every little bit helps when you read a lot (!).

O Magazine - There are two features in this monthly print magazine in the area the editors call the “Reading Room” that highlights book titles. One is the book review section where often there are books and authors featured which are completely unknown to me, so that’s fun. The other component is a short, monthly piece called “Books that Made a Difference to….”, which is a famous person. Here you’ll see old and new titles of all sorts—a wonderful source of ideas for something to read…or reread.

Local library – In Fairfax County (VA), where I live, the librarians put together a notebook of lists of forthcoming books, culled from a variety of sources available to them. Sometimes you have to ask at the Info Desk for the notebook. Books listed are often several months out, so it gives you a running jump start on the crowds who might be hankering for the next best seller by so & so. Then, you can jump online and reserve the book before anyone else, if you’re lucky, and save your book buying pennies a little bit! The other thing I like to do at the library is check out the used book sales because the books are so dang cheap. I can get a nice size stack for less than $5 and then, if I don’t like something after the first few pages, I can toss it aside with little regret for my expenditure. When I’ve collected enough, I give them back to the library for a book donation write off. All in all, it’s an easy and effective way to try out new authors and titles!

Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list of ways to find good books, but I sure have found these sources helpful in assuaging some of my anxiety for finding books. If you have other ideas for ways to find good books to read, I sure would appreciate hearing from you! E-mail me at

About: According to her mother, Rebecca Thomas taught herself to read at age 4, with great and early hopes of fulfilling her father's promise that one day she could read all the books on his shelf. She won the reading contest in 5th grade for giving the most book reports (and people still liked her). Prize was a still cherished color plated edition of "The Little Princess." She's been an association professional, a freelance writer, business owner and wife and mother. Currently in a great state of flux, she's contemplating reviving work on her epic novel and looking for a publishing venue once again. Mostly, though, she spends time reading.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

At the Writer's Center and Coming Soon to PA

I’ll be teaching a one-day workshop at the Writer’s Center on November 13:

Flex Your Creative Muscles: A One-Day Workshop
Spend the afternoon doing a series of intensive, guided exercises designed to shake up your brain and get your creative subconscious working for you. You can come with a project already in mind and focus your work toward a deeper understanding of that—or you can come as a blank slate (that will quickly fill up!). Fiction writers and memoirists of all levels are welcome.

I’ve taught it before, and it’s a great day of exercises and an excellent jumpstart for a specific project or if your muse has been feeling blah.

Registration information is here. Read more about the Writer's Center at

Also, the details aren’t finalized, but I’ll be up in Pennsylvania in early March, teaching a weekend class that I’m VERY excited about! More to come on that….

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Kindle Singles (Sounds Like Kraft Cheese!)

Dan Ryan sent me this link, announcing that Amazon will start selling independent long-form CNF/nonfiction for its Kindle:

“Today, Amazon is announcing that it will launch "Kindle Singles"--Kindle books that are twice the length of a New Yorker feature or as much as a few chapters of a typical book. Kindle Singles will have their own section in the Kindle Store and be priced much less than a typical book.”

Seems hopeful…and my hope is that they would turn to the novella, which is a beautiful form that many writers shy away from because there aren’t very many options for getting the finished piece out into the world.

Hoarding Your Ideas & How Writing Can Be Taught

I loved this piece in the Glimmer Train newsletter by Benjamin Percy, whose short story “Refresh, Refresh” was one of the most amazing short stories I’ve read in the past few years:

“Most writers are conservative. By that I mean they lock their best ideas in a vault and take pleasure in the richness of their stores, like misers with their money. Maybe you have moleskins full of hastily scribbled notes. Or a corkboard next to your desk messy with images, structural blueprints, articles ripped from magazines. Or at the very least a folder on your computer labeled Stuff.

“For every story or essay or poem you write, you withdraw one image, two characters, maybe three of the metaphors you have stockpiled—and then slam shut the vault and lock it with a key shaped like a skeleton's finger.

“I used to be the same way, nervously rationing out my ideas.”

Read on here.

I also liked this piece in the same newsletter by J. Kevin Shushtari (though, as usual, I’m terribly jealous of anyone who can be a doctor AND a writer):

“Some time ago, a doctor friend of mine who dabbles in fiction said, "Why are you getting an MFA? Everyone knows writing can't be taught." About to enroll in Boston University's MFA Program, I thought about his comment for a long time. As a doctor myself, I have long known that certain aspects of medicine can't be taught because, well, they're more art than science. Nobody can teach you, for example, how to feel compassion; you either do or you don't. Still, not a single person ever asked me why I was going to medical school. Not a single person said medicine can't be taught.”

Read on here.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Carla Cohen

Carla Cohen, co-owner of DC's premier independent bookstore Politics & Prose, has died. More here, at the P&P website:

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Work in Progress: How Readers Find Books

I’m always curious to know how people end up choosing the books that they purchase and/or read. As a writer, I know a lot of other writers and I read a lot of book reviews, so I like to imagine that my selections are informed in some organized way—though just as often as not my selections are based on a random recommendation by a friend (but if she’s a writer, doesn’t that make it a smarter, more appropriate recommendation?). I pay attention to book reviews, but I often will bypass a book deemed a “masterpiece” in the first paragraph for a book that’s about some topic that interests me (New York City and Breakfast at Tiffany’s) even if the review is not so glowing.

Also, I have an irritating habit of immediately asking who wrote a book when someone mentions something they’ve been reading. Other writers are accustomed to this question and readily provide the information—if they didn’t lead with it—but “regular” people are often startled, as if they hadn’t considered the author’s role…which is kind of nice when you think about it: they’re into the story, not who wrote the story (and what credentials that writer might have).

So here’s a story about how a reader found a book:

I was recently at a dinner party and a “regular” woman mentioned to the group that she was reading the most amazing book, although it was quite dark. Naturally, I asked what the book was: “Room,” she said. (By Emma Donoghue.)

Because the book had been reviewed extensively (New York Times Book Review front page, The Washington Post) and I had heard the author interviewed somewhere (NPR, no doubt) and because it’s on the short-list for the Man Booker Prize, I wasn’t all that surprised that she might be reading this “It” book.

She explained what the book was about to the group—it’s told from the point of view of a five-year-old-boy who has spent his whole life locked in a tiny room with his mother by an abusive man (his father)—and there was some conversation about that topic as fiction and the real-life story that undoubtedly inspired it and how excellent the book was even though it was so dark and what a page turner it was and on, until I knew that I couldn’t wait for the paperback and would have to buy Room now.

Then—because this woman was so sweet and not the type who looks as though she would enjoy reading disturbing books—I asked how she had picked the book, and she said, “It was at Costco. We were on our way out but I wanted to grab a book, and I picked one up, read the first few pages…then I picked up this book, read some pages, and knew I had to keep reading.”

So there you have it, yet again: It’s the STORY, stupid. Not the name, not the awards, and not even the reviews. The STORY.

(Okay, with a little help from distribution.)

Then I recommended my favorite dark, disturbing book--We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver--and she told me she’d look for it.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Good News: Crab Orchard Review

I’m pleased to report that I have a new piece in the Summer/Fall 2010 edition of Crab Orchard Review. “The Chicago Brother” is a section from my novel-in-progress, but don’t be afraid: it truly does stand on its own. I’m especially pleased to be included in this special “Land of Lincoln: Writing about and from Illinois” issue…and to see a lovely poem about Mary Todd Lincoln by my buddy, Anna Leahy!

The contents are not online at this time (sorry), but for more information, the website is here. And if you’re looking to submit to a very classy, top-notch journal, you should read the FAQ (here) and then send in your work. This journal is truly edited by people who care! Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Link Corral: Gatsby Tour (Because What Is a Day without Gatsby?) & Poetry

Writer Paula Whyman sent along a link to a New York Times article about the “Gatsby” tour of Long Island, NY. (I’m officially like one of those women who collects ceramic elephants, and so everyone gives her one…only, whew, I collect Gatsby/Fitzgerald links, instead of elephants.)

Anyway, go here:

“Board the Long Island Rail Road. Watch the gap. Be borne back into the past over tracks that will lead you to Fitzgerald’s Eggs, East and West, which he placed in “the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound,” a half-hour from Manhattan by train, not much longer by Rolls-Royce.

“That is if you can find this place. Long Island was the setting for the novel, but discovering what’s left of its 1920s Gold Coast splendor — either the real thing or Fitzgerald’s vivid gilt invention — is as much a job for a receptive imagination as it is for a Google map with a homing device directed to locate a certain green beacon. It’s a diverting exercise, though, and the railroad is an excellent starting point. After all, it ferried party guests to Gatsby, whose “station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains.”


Poet Philip Belcher wrote this great review of Sandra Beasley’s new book, I Was the Jukebox, one of my favorite books of the year. From Gently Read Literature:

“If Sandra Beasley’s first collection, Theories of Falling, showed something of this poet’s promise, her second collection and winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize, I Was the Jukebox, makes clear that we are in the hands of a talented writer with a strong voice, a vivid imagination, and a bright future. This new collection is all about voice, and Beasley’s is unmistakable and clear.”


Beltway Poetry Quarterly continues the year-long celebration of our tenth anniversary with one more special issue, "Mapping the City: DC Places II," with an interactive map

Contains 40 poems about specific places in the greater Washington, DC region. Poems mention streets, neighborhoods, parks, monuments, or businesses by name. A beautiful interactive map by Emery Pajer allows readers to scan the city and press digital pushpins to select poems.

Go to

Monday, October 4, 2010

Gatsby and Gatz...Again

Stop everything and read this first of a new series of columns about writing in the Wall Street Journal. Fitzgerald is a master of description, and writer Blake Bailey is a master at conveying the evidence concisely:

"In "The Lost Weekend," the alcoholic protagonist Don Birnam pretends to teach his favorite novel, "The Great Gatsby," to an audience of students, all agog: F. Scott Fitzgerald, he says, "has the one thing that a novelist needs: a truly seeing eye."

"I've said as much to my own students, in the course of asking them, say, to describe a lawn. They shrug. Blink. "It's green," one of them invariably says. "Grassy." Here's how Fitzgerald describes one: "The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run."

"The lawn ran? The lawn jumped? Is it an ill-tended lawn? Obviously not, because it's so sleek and swift, in such a well-groomed hurry to dash over every obstacle and splash itself festively against the bricks…."

Read the rest here. (Thanks, Steve, for the link!)


More on Gatz, the 8-hour show in which the entire text of The Great Gatsby is read/interpreted:

Gatz director John Collins says the first 45 minutes of the performance are the toughest for him, as he senses the audience's fear that they will simply be "watching some guy read." But he says the show makes a deeper connection with theatergoers because they see the transformation of the character reading the book over many hours and begin to feel a kinship with him."

(Thanks, Steve, for this link, too…thank goodness I know someone who reads the Wall Street Journal!)

VA vs. MD, Round One

Check out writer Paula Whyman’s funny blog post about living in Virginia vs. living in Maryland. Oh, look…there I am, as featured guest, being mocked for living in the lovely Commonwealth of Virginia! I think I lose this battle...sorry, Commonwealth:

“If you grow up in the Maryland suburbs, there is an unwritten rule: You do not go to Virginia. There are any number of legitimate reasons for this, whether you prefer to cite Civil War history, or merely the stark incompatibility of state mottos: Virginia is for lovers; Maryland, as we know, is for crabs. We like it that way.

Paula: How often do you come to Bethesda, and what are your impressions? Because even though my impressions of Virginia were formed by not going there, I expect you to give me a reasoned perspective on Maryland based on actual experience.

Leslie: Well, when I go to Maryland, it’s usually Bethesda, so I guess it’s my favorite place that isn’t Baltimore or the Eastern Shore, or that isn’t the Bob Evans outside Frederick that I once stopped at the morning after a horrific snowstorm that forced me to stay overnight in Breezewood, Penn.

Paula: So, basically, Bethesda is your favorite Maryland destination, besides Bob Evans on the highway and all the other Maryland destinations you’ve visited. High praise!"

Read the rest here!


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