Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My Five Favorite Books of 2010

As always, I wish I read more, but I read well this year. Along with the books I reread for my literature class (that list is here), I found some gems. In random order, here are the five new-to-me books that I am certain will stick with me in the years to come:

Just Kids by Patti Smith
Room by Emma Donoghue
Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
Miles from Nowhere by Nami Mun
Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Happy new year!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Work in Progress: Words of Wisdom for the Holiday Food Season

I’m not sure who wrote this, so sorry for this blatant stealing. It’s one of those emails that has been forwarded a zillion times, and given the topic, it certainly caught my attention when it was sent to me by Cynthia, one of my dear Michigan relatives. (Cynthia is my father’s cousin, so I’m not sure what the official word would be to describe our familial relationship…suffice it to say that she’s fun, funny, a foodie, and a fabulously avid reader and opera fan, and I’m so incredibly LUCKY to be related to her!)

Anyway, read it and live it, especially the last paragraph. I’ll be taking a break from blogging for the next two weeks so I can focus on following these guidelines with gusto. Happy holidays, and as they said back in second grade, See you next year!


1. Avoid carrot sticks. Anyone who puts carrots on a holiday buffet table knows nothing of the Christmas spirit. In fact, if you see carrots, leave immediately. Go next door, where they're serving rum balls.

2. Drink as much eggnog as you can. And quickly. It's rare.. You cannot find it any other time of year but now. So drink up! Who cares that it has 10,000 calories in every sip? It's not as if you're going to turn into an eggnog-alcoholic or something. It's a treat. Enjoy it. Have one for me. Have two. It's later than you think. It's Christmas!

3. If something comes with gravy, use it. That's the whole point of gravy. Gravy does not stand alone. Pour it on. Make a volcano out of your mashed potatoes. Fill it with gravy. Eat the volcano. Repeat.

4. As for mashed potatoes, always ask if they're made with skim milk or whole milk. If it's skim, pass. Why bother? It's like buying a sports car with an automatic transmission.

5. Do not have a snack before going to a party in an effort to control your eating. The whole point of going to a Christmas party is to eat other people's food for free. Lots of it. Hello?

6. Under no circumstances should you exercise between now and New Year's. You can do that in January when you have nothing else to do. This is the time for long naps, which you'll need after circling the buffet table while carrying a 10-pound plate of food and that vat of eggnog.

7. If you come across something really good at a buffet table, like frosted Christmas cookies in the shape and size of Santa, position yourself near them and don't budge. Have as many as you can before becoming the center of attention. They're like a beautiful pair of shoes. If you leave them behind, you're never going to see them again.

8. Same for pies. Apple, Pumpkin, Mincemeat. Have a slice of each. Or if you don't like mincemeat, have two apples and one pumpkin. Always have three. When else do you get to have more than one dessert? Labor Day?

9. Did someone mention fruitcake? Granted, it's loaded with the mandatory celebratory calories, but avoid it at all cost. I mean, have some standards.

10. One final tip: If you don't feel terrible when you leave the party or get up from the table, you haven't been paying attention. Re-read tips; start over, but hurry, January is just around the corner. Remember this motto to live by:

"Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming "WOO HOO what a ride!"

Have a great holiday season!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Visitors to Gatsby's Mansion

Writer C.M. Mayo sent me the link to this great art print that shows all the business cards and personal stationery of Gatsby’s party guests during that summer. Look, there’s Jordan Baker down in the lower right corner!

Restaurants & Bars Theme Contest

Money for the contest winner and hearing your story read at Symphony Space: priceless! Plus, what a GREAT theme…. Here are the details:

The 2011 Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize
with guest judge Jennifer Egan

The winning submission, selected by Jennifer Egan, will be read as part of the Selected Shorts performance at Symphony Space on June 8, 2011. The story will be recorded for possible later broadcast as part of the public radio series. The winner will receive $1000.

Story requirements
-Submit a single short story that addresses the theme, Restaurants and Bars.
-Your story must have a title.
-Make sure your name and contact information appear on the first page of your story. If you are submitting online, this information needs to appear on the first page of the attached Word document.
-Include page numbers.
-Your story must be no more than 750 words double-spaced (Times New Roman, 12pt font).
-Your story must be unpublished.

All submissions must be received by March 1, 2011. To be specific, online submissions must be submitted by 5pm Eastern Standard Time. Mailed submissions must arrive with the day's mail. (Entries postmarked on March 2 will NOT be accepted.)

Where to submit your story
Submit your submission online at

Mail to
CONTEST, Selected Shorts Symphony Space
2537 Broadway
New York, NY 10025.

Mailed submissions must also include a check for $25, written to Symphony Space. Online submissions must give credit card information to submit. Stories will not be accepted without payment of the $25 fee.Please do not send duplicate copies (online or snail-mail is sufficient). We cannot allow revisions to your story once we have received it. Due to the high volume of submissions and the small size of our office, we will not be able to notify you when we receive your story. The winner will be selected by Jennifer Egan and notified by early May. As soon as the winner is selected, his or her name will be posted to this page.

Contestants who submit online or provide their email address will be added to the Selected Shorts email list - please let us know if you do not wish to receive email about upcoming programs.

The Prize
$1000 and two tickets to the June 8th Selected Shorts at Symphony Space, when the prizewinning story will be read.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Link Corral: Dave Eggers, Cute Gatsby Purse, Moby-Dick Annotated Online

The Washington Post ran an excellent piece on “the writing life” by Dave Eggers. (Based on the article, I think he’d expect those quotation marks around “the writing life.”)

“When I watch that movie [All the President’s Men], I also think about how mundane my own "writing life" can be. For example, I'm putting together this essay, not in a bustling metropolitan newsroom, but in a shed in my backyard. I have a sheet draped over the shed's window because without it the morning sun would blast through and blind me. So I'm looking at a gray sheet, which is nailed to the wall in two places and sags in the middle like a big, gray smile. And the sheet is filthy. And the shed is filthy. If I left this place unoccupied for a week, it would become home to woodland animals. They probably would clean it up first.”

Read the rest here.


I wish I had known about this site when I was reading Moby-Dick this summer: it’s an online annotation of the entire novel. There’s a labor of love. I bow to you, Meg Guroff.

Here’s the link to Power Moby-Dick.

Here’s more about Meg Guroff: “Though many people wondered why she would undertake such a project, Guroff says she found support from teachers and colleagues from her days in the Writing Seminars. "Hopkins was where I learned to honor people's creative, or, in this case, quasi-creative efforts," she says. She also realized the surprise many readers experience when they get past the book's density and see how emotionally powerful, thought-provoking, yet impressively funny Moby-Dick can be. "I mean, it's full of bawdy humor and fart jokes," Guroff says.”

And I’ve been meaning to link to the Kate Spade Great Gatsby clutch purse, but they’ve all been sold! I guess that’s good: fashionistas everywhere know a good thing. Here’s a picture—and the other selections in the Book of the Month Clutch group. (Thanks for the link, Rachel!)

Monday, December 13, 2010

KHN Center Seeks Applications for Residencies

I had a residency here several years ago and loved it—highly recommended!

The Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska City, NE offers 2- to 8-week residencies year-round for writers, visual artists, and music composers. Housing, studio space, $100/week stipend are provided.

Approximately 50 residencies are awarded per year. Two deadlines each year: postmarked March 1 for the following July through December 15; postmarked September 1 for the following January through June 15.

$25 application fee.

See website for complete information, guidelines and application:

The Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts
801 3rd Corso
Nebraska City, Nebraska 68410

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Work in Progress: How Hard Is It to Say Thank You?

We’re artistes. We have a certain temperamental aura that may include dark moodiness and intense brooding. We’re under-appreciated and under-paid, and yet we see ourselves as necessary to any society. Yes, yes, yes—but can’t we be polite, especially since we live in a very, very, VERY small community?

By small community, I mean that I no longer am failed to be surprised when someone remembers meeting me a dozen years at AWP. By small community, I mean that I would pick up a book written by my Bread Loaf roommate who I met a zillion years ago, who I haven’t spoken to or seen in those zillion years…yet I’m still generally aware of what she’s writing. By small community, I mean that at a certain point in a writer’s career, you could meet any other writer and within five minutes of conversation, find a common writer-friend—more than one, in fact, one you both adore, and one you both think is a pompous so-and-so. We are all packed together in this difficult (but oh-so emotionally rewarding!) profession, so can’t we try to extend some courtesy?

In the summer, I decided to email writers after reading books that I liked, curious to see what happened. (Personally, I love emails from readers!) One person never responded, and trust me when I say that her book was not even remotely so important that she had that luxury of ignoring a reader. Another writer was a best-selling author with a new book she was promoting, so I’ll cut her a little break—but then why didn’t her very professional, bells-and-whistles website have an automatic response set up? On the other hand, I sent a message to Emma Donoghue, author of ROOM, a book that has been getting a ton of attention and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, for God’s sake, and she—surely a very busy person at the moment!—found the time to respond within 24 hours, with a personal email response.

People remember this kind of stuff.

I remember when students send a quick thank you email at the end of the semester (after the grades are in, please), and that may (who am I kidding—WILL) affect my deliberations later if someone needs a letter of recommendation when I’m feeling pressed for time. Or someone wonders if I have any suggestions for where to send their long story that they finally finished. I will go out of my way to help someone who seems to feel—shock!—grateful for my assistance, as opposed to someone who seems to feel entitled to it. Yes, in the classroom, it’s a job. But afterwards…remember what I said above, about that small world: I will remember you. So how hard is it to write up a quick thank you to your teachers at the end of the semester? The teachers I know work very hard at their jobs—often draining time from their own work to ensure a successful class—and students are short-sighted—and rude (there, I’ve said it!)—not to acknowledge that.

I’m also surprised to see how few thank yous I get after I speak somewhere. Of course, there’s one thing if you’re getting paid big bucks to appear—nevertheless, if you’re getting that much money, you’re probably in high demand and you probably could have chosen not to appear. And anyway, how hard is it to write a quick message so someone feels appreciated? I write those thank yous to people who invite me to speak, and I promise that it doesn’t take very long.

I also write a thank you note to editors who publish my work. Talk about under-paid and under-appreciated…. I especially appreciate when they’ve worked with me on the manuscript to made it better or when they’ve caught my errors. Frankly, I also think the editors should be grateful to us, too—it surprises me when every now and then I would get an acceptance letter, then maybe a letter about buying more copies, then copies in the mail…no personal note. No, “we’re so proud to publish your story in our journal.” Again, not that hard to write a note.

Recently I read on Facebook about a writer/teacher who noted that she was doing a presentation to her class about how to submit/find an agent, etc—and that she was also including a section about how to give BACK to the literary community. That’s the best thank you of all: Start a reading series. Donate money to a small press. Buy books and more books. Volunteer to screen manuscripts at a journal. Man a booth at a book fair. Don’t always take-take-take—give-give-give.

I know that there are plenty of writers who do thank people, who do appreciate those who go out of their way to be generous with time, energy, and assistance, who do give back to the community. And no one likes an insincere suck-up, so there’s a bit of a balancing act.

But the bottom line is that there’s no bottom line when it comes to thank you. Expressing gratitude is free! Who doesn’t like being thanked and feeling appreciated? Maybe all these thank yous and notes don’t lead anywhere specific (i.e. Important Editor at the New Yorker: “I remember that Leslie Pietrzyk sent us a nice note when we wrote her that thoughtful rejection letter five years ago, so let’s get one of her stories for our 2011 summer fiction issue”). But you never know. And anyway, the real reason to send out a few thank yous is to make our small, emotionally-rewarding-but-also-emotionally-brutal world, just a tiny bit more pleasant.

So, thank YOU for reading this blog! I appreciate that there are plenty of ways to spend your time, and I'm grateful that you spend some of it here.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Jenny McKean Moore Applications Due 1/10/11

NOTE: Go here for information on the fall 2011 Jenny McKean Moore Free Community Workshop:

Please go to my previous post about the Jenny McKean Moore FREE Community Workshop for the details about this year’s class and teacher: creative nonfiction, led by Tilar J. Mazzeo.

No, there’s no website with more information. Yes, that’s incredibly dumb not to throw one together. Yes, I complain about this every time the applications are due. Yes, people email me to tell me that this blog is the ONLY place online they found the information.

The deadline to apply for the spring session—Tuesdays, 6-8 PM, January 18-April 19, 2011—is Monday, January 10, 2011.

To apply, please submit a letter of interest and a detailed personal narrative in which you describe your writing projects, your goals for the seminar, and how you hope to benefit from the workshop. Include your name, address, home/work telephone numbers, and email address. All applicants will be contacted by email by January 14.

Send your applications (by Monday, January 10, 2011) to
JMM Creative Nonfiction Workshop
Department of English
The George Washington University
801 22nd Street NW (Suite 760)
Washington, DC 20052

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Patti Smith to Speak in DC on 12/11

Patti Smith will be discussing her award-winning memoir, Just Kids, on Saturday, December 11, at 2 pm at the National Portrait Gallery in DC. For more information, go here. There’s no charge, so I might think there'll be a crowd, so plan accordingly.

San Fran's Fabulous Lit Scene

On Sunday, The New York Times ran a great article about San Francisco's vibrant literary scene. (The city ranks in the top three for per capita expenditure on books AND booze, the only city to get such high ranking for both.)

Enticing excerpt: “Books, we are told, are a half-millennium-old technology on the cusp of being swept away forever. So a journey to San Francisco to immerse oneself in them might seem the cultural equivalent of going to visit the glaciers before they melt. But in San Francisco, the home of many of the very technologies that have drawn a bead on the book, visitors will find a living, historically rooted literary scene that, though it has surely heard the news of its own demise, isn’t buying it.”

Read the rest here.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Shorter Side of Melville

Last week’s pitiful lament that no one writes "short" about Melville brought some suggestions:

Poet John Guzlowski recommends a science fiction book called The Wind Whales of Ishmael by Philip Jose Farmer. There’s no description of the book on Amazon, but here’s one of the reader reviews that gives a sense of the book:

“Phil Farmer has cleverly used historical and fictional characters in many of his stories. This novel propels Ishmael of Moby Dick fame from the mast of the ship Rachel, sailing the South Seas in 1842, into the far, far future of Earth. Farmer attributes this "time travel" experience as a consequence of looking at the cryptic carvings engraved upon Queequeg's coffin. Additional references to Moby Dick show up throughout the story. Ishmael is saved from drowning by a providential appearance of the harpooners coffin and on several occasions he ponders about Ahab and his obsession with The Whale. “

Ishmael find himself in a future with a swollen red Sun, oceans evaporated to the point where islands appear to be mountains and the primary means of travel are lighter than air ships that rely on sails and air bladders. Ishmael quickly established himself as a warrior leader and after disposing several kinds of vicious predators gets a kingdom and the girl.”

160 pages.

On Facebook, several people drew my attention to The Night Inspector by Frederick Busch. Here’s an excerpt of the Publisher’s Weekly review on Amazon:

“Sweeping pathos, historical knowledge, philosophical density and gruesome violence make Busch's 19th work of fiction both profound and a page-turner. Busch's articulate narrator, William Bartholomew, served as a Union sniper in the Civil War until an explosion maimed his face; now it's 1867, and Bartholomew works as an investor in New York City, hiding his scars behind a pasteboard mask. The Civil War may be over, but slavery isn't: slave children are stuck at a Florida school, and Jessie, a Creole prostitute romantically involved with Bartholomew, entangles him in a plot to bring them North to freedom. Bartholomew seeks help from Herman Melville, once a bestselling novelist, now a customs inspector (the "night inspector") in Manhattan's shipyards. Rapacious journalist Samuel Mordecai tags along, hoping for scoops on the demimonde of the docks. After struggles with corrupt bureaucrats and money-hungry merchants, Bartholomew's mission collapses in a grisly climax.”

304 pages.

And there were several votes for Andrew Delbanco’s biography, Melville: His World and Work (446 pages, which, personally, I would only call "short" in comparison to the 2000-page, 2-volume biography).

Finally, this one was recommended and sounds intriguing: Edward F. Edinger, Melville's Moby Dick – An American Nekyia (Studies in Jungian Psychology By Jungian Analysts)

From the information on Amazon: “The great American novel Moby-Dick describes symbolically Herman Melville's stormy spiritual voyage. It is also a profound expression of Western civilization in transition. Edward Edinger approaches Moby-Dick as a psychological document, a symbolic record of an intense inner experience which, like a dream, needs interpretation and elaboration of its images for their meaning to emerge fully. Central to Edinger's penetrating commentary is the concept of nekyia, signifying a descent to the underworld -- that is, an encounter with the unconscious. Thus, the subtitle of this work underscores the correspondence between the deep internal struggle from which Melville's masterpiece emerged and the hidden complexities within us all.” -- Midwest Book Review

The winner, at 156 pages.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Work in Progress: Should Literary Writers Think about Audience?

Now that the rush of Thanksgiving has ceased, I’m back to writing, but—alas!—the only writing that I’ve been doing has been working on our annual Christmas letter (yes, I’m one of those people) and my craft lecture for the winter residency at the MFA program at Converse College.

You wouldn’t think those two forms would have much in common…but you might be wrong. (Or, my mashing them together might be a sign of desperation as I hurriedly try to come up with something to write this morning before heading out to an appointment.)

My craft lecture is about the importance of the writer’s voice, how it’s through voice that work will truly soar and be unique. My Christmas letter is about—well, me and Steve.

What I’ve been thinking about as I work on these two forms is the idea of audience, which is something I don’t think about enough as I write my fiction. But isn’t the thought of “audience” one of the basic premises of any Comp 101 class: who’s the audience for your essay; who will be reading it? In a craft lecture, I must be mindful of the tired students huddled in their seats, about to doze off from the exhaustion and over-stimulation of the residency. In a Christmas letter, I need to be mindful of friends/family who have received a zillion overly-bragging letters and are rolling their eyes as they unfold mine.

So, I add some jokes and personal stories to my discussion of voice; I vary my pacing by reading examples from novels and stories that prove my points simply by their excellent existence; I have a list with numbers to help listeners keep their focus. In my Christmas letter, I go for humor and self-deprecation. I follow a form I’ve imposed upon myself: each year has its own theme. I limit the length and stick to the highlights, and always poke gentle fun at myself.

But when I write fiction, I simply write it. I write what I want, as I want. I edit, of course, and revise, but I confess that I rarely—if ever—catch myself thinking about audience. I mean, I might wonder if my audience will need more explanation on a certain factual matter, for example, but I don’t wonder if there’s an audience will like what I’m writing. I don’t think I write to please others; I write to please myself.

The kind of writing that is written to please others—genre romances, say, or thrillers—gets a bad rap because it’s perceived to be simplistic. Maybe so: those writers are giving the readers what they want, a nice little story with a happy ending. And art is designed NOT to give people what they want. (Read here and here to see Blake Gopnik’s elegant response to the current controversy about the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery withdrawing a video that has angered some Christians; the bit in question shows ants crawling on a crucifix.)

But, really, what about this question of audience in literary work? Should we—can we?—ignore the question of audience altogether? If I’m truly writing to please myself, why do I care if something ends up published or not? How might my writing change if I thought more about audience? Or do I think a great deal about audience and just don’t want to admit it to myself? (Because what does it mean if you think about audience and your work still isn’t published?)

In the end, it’s always back to this: What is the purpose of art?

No answers here, but I can report that my Christmas letter is almost done!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Big New Novel About Melville...Still Waiting for the Melville Villanelle

There’s a new novel just out now about the life of Herman Melville: The Passages of H.M. by Jay Parini. The reviews have not been raves, but sometimes you just know that a book is right for you.

My big beef, though, is the length (450 pages). Why must everything about Melville be so dang looooong (Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund , 704 pages; the classic Melville biography, 2000 pages in two volumes)? How about some flash fiction on Melville for a change of pace? A haiku?

The Washington Post review of the Parini book is here: “The finer elements of this novel are sometimes submerged beneath its more ordinary sections, but "The Passages of H.M." remains a sensitive introduction to Melville's stormy life and imagination. Anyone setting off into the great writer's novels, or returning to them after years away, might enjoy this thoughtful re-imagining of the man who remains America's Milton.”

Here’s the New York Times Book Review on the book: “For those who haven’t braved a reading of “Moby-Dick,” yet retain some curiosity about this great American novel and its author, “The Passages of H. M.” may satisfy — but at the expense of the “truth” of Herman Melville’s life. The man is, from this distance, unknowable. Any biographical treatment can only hope to be, as Ishmael describes his unfinished record of all the world’s knowledge of whales, “but the draught of a draught.”


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