Thursday, July 29, 2010

Work in Progress: Titles, Again...But with a Survey!

Why can’t I title my novels? Why am I paralyzed by this simple act? Seriously, next time I’m going to write a novel to fit a title that I like. Even yesterday’s poem on the Writer’s Almanac mocked me:

From the beginning of “Her First Novel,” by James Tate

When Connie finished her novel she came
over to my place to celebrate. I mixed up a
shaker full of Manhattans and we sat out on the
porch. "Here's to… What's the title?" I
asked. "Well, that's a problem. The title's
kind of awful. It's called THE KING OF SLOPS."
"Gosh," I said, "that's unfortunate. I think
you can probably do better than that." …
[read the rest here]

Anyway, the good news is that I’m winding down this round of revisions, about to send this baby into the world to see what the world thinks, but I still don’t have a title that doesn’t make someone cringe, whether it’s my husband or my writing group or me.

For a while the book was simply called THE CHICAGO RIVER. That’s what the computer files all say. But that’s not really enough. Then it went through several different options, none of which felt like 100 percent to anyone except the desperation in me.

To find a title I have:
--skimmed parts of the Bible
--skimmed Huckleberry Finn
--skimmed Song of Myself
--skimmed Heart of Darkness
--torn through the tables of contents of several, random books of poetry as it’s my contention that poets have the best titles
--reread parts of The Wasteland
--reread parts of Mark Strand’s The Continuous Life
--googled river quotations
--read a website about river rafting
--googled Polish sayings
--reread my Polish cookbook (source of the title of Pears on a Willow Tree)
--googled poems about rivers (there are a lot of bad ones out there)
--bought a book of poetry because someone told me there was a villanelle about a river in it (very lovely, but nothing to steal for a title)
--reread my notes on Frederick Jackson Turner’s “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”
--high-jacked a late-night social gathering at VCCA to beg for title ideas (they flowed as the scotch flowed, becoming sillier and sillier as the scotch kept flowing)
--looked up books with “river” in the title on amazon
--spent a couple hours one morning writing a 3-page, 2-column list of titles, none of which was any good except for maybe the last one
--begged Steve to read two chapters about the Chicago River in a jargon-ish non-fiction book and write a list of suggested titles

So, now it’s up to you. Please take my exciting title survey…I’m serious and I’m desperate. That’s a very scary combination. I’m not going to say much about what the book is about, except to note that it takes place on one day in 1900 in Chicago, and, as you might have guessed, the Chicago River is important.

Try this link--

Click here to take survey
or since I don't trust my tech skills, try this if the above doesn't work:

Thank you! [Note: There will be a sign-up to create your own survey after you're done, but you can just close that screen and exit. The price of free services, alas!]

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Reading Moby Dick, 8: Uh-Oh

Who happily wades through all the whaling information only to be bogged down in the PLOT of the last 100 pages when the Pequod finally seems as though it will find this fish? (Yes, I know Moby Dick is not a “fish” as I carefully read the whaling information.)

It’s not that I’m bored, just that this book is not always an easy one to pick up at the end of the day. It’s big and heavy! Plus, it takes a while to get back into the language and flow, and by that time, I’m asleep. (Hmm…light bulb here: I suppose I could skip watching the New Jersey Housewives and read instead?)

Anyway, would Ahab let a silly thing like sleepiness stop him from his goals? I will finish the book no later than one week from today. If I don’t, I’ll do something dramatic that involves monetary loss on my part. Send a blog reader on an all-expenses paid trip to Nantucket? Or maybe a literary journal subscription? One of those two.

I found the text online in case you’d like to read the book but don’t want to lug it around and you haven’t broken down and bought a Kindle/iPad/George Jetson Book Reader yet. Go here to begin! [Spoiler alert: the synopsis gives away the ending!]

Link Corral: Self-Publishing, Self-Editing

The Madam Mayo blog offers this guest post by Deborah Batterman that’s a solid, serious guide to help anyone interested in checking out the self-publishing waters:

“And yet I admit to some reservations about going full-throttle into digital DIY mode. As a reader I love the feel of a book in my hands, the reflective nature that seems diminished by the visual nature of reading on-screen. As a writer I love the way words take shape in my mind and on the page. The ‘page’ as it exists on a digital reader is not the same: differences in the technology that drives each eReader result in variances in formatting. If I go this route, am I sacrificing my sense of what a book IS and everything it takes to bring one to fruition? Yes. At the same time, as a writer seeking ways to increase my exposure, why not tap that market of readers shelving their paperbacks in favor of viewing books on portable screens? And even if my plunge into the world of self-published digital books carries the risk that my own work (now a thumbnail image in an eBookstore) may get lost in a sea of ‘vanity’ books, all it takes is one good wave to lift it out of the water.”

Read the rest here.


Joe Schuster (who wrote that great piece here about “20 writers over 40”) directed me to this link on MoBettaWriting, about how to tell when your work is done.

I’ve certainly been here:

Writer/blogger Steven Schwartz writes, “I just wrote a story and one of the sentences that I kept trying to work in was "Janice could almost be alive in Las Vegas." I'll skip the story summary; in fact, I'll skip any context, and just tell you that I worked with this sentence, with some coffee and bathroom breaks in between, for 3 hours, a long time for one sentence. I tried rephrasing it: "Janice, Gene realized, with stinging regret, could almost be alive in Las Vegas" and "Janice, Gene realized, with stinging longing, could, in this city of might happen, almost be alive out here." But wait! It changes everything when I use an em dash: "Janice--he realized with stinging longing--could almost be alive out here."”

Read the whole piece to get to this bit of incredibly wise advice:

“Yes, Mark Twain memorably said that the difference between the right word and the next to right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. But the right word has a spark of spontaneity and grace to it; the perfect word has a whiff of sweat and pushiness.“In other words, you need to back off and let the narrative take its chances.”

This is exactly what I needed to be reminded during these days of revision: there is a bigger picture, beyond that semi-colon that perhaps should be a comma or even a period or re-written entirely.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Change Is Good...

…right? It better be, since now I have absolutely no idea how to make this blog look like it used to. I’ve updated the blogrolls and reorganized; I’ve also added tabs to make sharing easier on Facebook and the other places those symbols take you (email, Twitter, and who-knows-where-else...the dark side of the moon?). Also, feel free to express an opinion on what you read, though cleverly you’re limited to “funny,” “interesting,” and “cool” since no one really wants to hear that their blog post “sucks.”

There’s also a “search” button but it doesn’t seem to work, so that’s helpful, eh? Maybe it will fix itself in the coming days, which is generally my approach to computer repair.

(If you’re reading this in an email newsletter, you have no idea what I’m talking about, so don’t panic. But do check out the brand new look to the blog if you get a chance: Compliments/complaints are welcome, the compliments more so.

Mad Men's Reading List

“Mad Men” has started on AMC—poor Don needs to call a real estate agent to get him out of that awful apartment!—and to celebrate, here’s a list of all the books that have been read and/or referred to in the first three seasons…including Fitzgerald!

I’m guessing The Feminine Mystique will make an appearance eventually.

"How Does the Writer Make the Long Haul?"

Here’s a great piece on The Rumpus by Stacey D’Erasmo that explores why writers keep writing:

But how does the writer make the long haul? As I go on through the gates of novel three, novel four, I find that I am increasingly interested in this question. Something changes. Something shifts: How do I keep doing this? I don’t suffer from an excess of self-confidence, nor rage, nor purity of spirit. Doors have opened for me, but other doors have remained closed. I have had as many reasons to stop as I have had to continue. Yet I always chose the latter, without hesitation. This may be a matter of temperament, astrological alignments, a warp in my DNA, psychology, race, class, the weather on a certain day in 1974—who knows? But, though I have certainly doubted my talent and my ability to pull off what I am trying to do, I have never doubted my conviction that the pursuit itself, the vocation, was the path I had to be on. This business of making sentences, images, scenes—it is so constitutive of my being that I hardly know who I would be without it. Writing is like my Siamese twin: freakish, alive, weighty, uncanny. Were we to be separated, I doubt that I could survive it.

“Stop now? After all this? Are you crazy?”—I guess my answer makes as much sense as anything else does.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Past Tense vs. Present Tense

Here’s a good discussion on Editorial Ass of the challenges of writing in the present tense. I say, ditto.

James River Conference

The James River Conference down in Richmond always sells out…registration is open now:

Registration for Conference 2010 is now open online.
When: Friday, Saturday, October 8-9
NEW: Workshops on Thursday, October 7
Where: The Library of Virginia
Cost: $195
$175 early-bird registration
$40 for Thursday workshops

Featuring: Silas House, Mike Olmert, Charles J. Shields, Charles Todd, Jacqueline Woodson, and more, including NYC literary agents and editor Heather Lazare of Crown's Three Rivers Press.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Work in Progress: The Yo-Yo of Revision

I’m in the throes of revising my novel at the moment, with the homestretch in sight (sort of; at least for this phase of writing/rewriting; almost; maybe), and yet I can’t relax. Can we ever relax? Can we ever—please!—JUST RELAX?

It’s never good enough, it’s never “done”; it never matches the vision we had in our heads.

There’s always something we should have added or something we should have deleted. There’s such an obvious thread that we should have pulled forward—or out.

There’s a better word, but it’s not in your head or in your computer’s crappy thesaurus. That word is always on the tip of your tongue. (Red-pen that cliché.)

That conversation—the intense one? the one where we see for the first time the depth of how intensely these two hate each other?—needs more lines. Or is it fewer lines? Should they talk more or shut up? Should they stand up or sit down? It matters—EVERY F-ING WORD MATTERS—so what the heck should they do…perhaps they shouldn’t even be at a table. What if they were at the aquarium instead of a dining room table? Were there public aquariums in 1900? In Chicago? Research break!!!!!!

This book has no meaning.

This book is sooooooo boring. No one will read it. I can’t even read it. (Once I fell asleep while reading it, but don’t tell anyone.) No one will ever read this book.

This font sucks.

I should have been a pair of ragged claws / scuttling across the floors of silent seas. (Research break to look up that quote and get it exactly right!!!!!!!!) Or an accountant.

Hemingway said, “Write one true sentence.” Pietrzyk says (adds?) (counters?) (shrieks?) (despairs?), “And then write 10,000 more.”

This book will never be done. This book will be done.

“I can’t go on like this."
“That’s what you think.”

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Moby Dick Lives!

"A South African couple have a whale of a story to tell after a whale apparently leaped out of the water and landed on their yacht.

"Photos show the massive creature breaching over and plopped on Paloma Werner and Ralph Mothes' 32-foot-boat."

See the photo here.

Link Corral: Dialogue, Dust-Up, Devotion

While I get through Melville’s chapters about whale skeletons (who’s the obsessive one here? I’m pretty sure Captain Ahab isn’t the only one….), check out these links:

Writer Janet Fitch offers some excellent and smart tips about writing dialogue:

“Dialogue is only for conflict.

“It’s like a racehorse, it can’t just carry any old thing, the pots and pans and old tires. You can’t heap all your expository business on it, the meet and greet, all that yack. It’s just for the conflict between one character and another. That’s it.”

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


Here’s the latest literary dust-up. The Paris Review, with new editors in place, has decided to “un-accept” a number of poems it had committed to publish. Such a bummer for the writers—and who knows how long those poems have been sitting around, waiting?—and sort of a tacky thing to do. Read more here on Brevity’s blog and here, on They Who Are About to Comment.

(Thanks for the links, virtually every writer on Facebook!)


From Slate, here’s a moving story about the ten-year journey of writing a novel…it’s not always pretty, but it will be familiar to many:

“Writing is hard—writers say this all the time, and I think probably only other writers believe it. But it's not nearly as hard, in my experience, as not writing.

“During my should-be-writing years, I thought about my novel all the time. Increasingly, these were not happy or satisfying thoughts. My "novel" (which had started to wear its own air quotes in my head) became something closer to enemy than lover. A person and his creative work exist in a relationship very much like a marriage: When it's good, it's very good, and when it's bad, it's ugly. And when it's been bad for a long, long time, you start to think about divorce.”

Read the rest here (thanks for the link, Annie!).

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Shenandoah's Amazing Tribute to Flannery O'Connor

I’ve been eager to see Shenandoah’s tribute issue to Flannery O’Connor since I first heard editor R.T. Smith speak of it during one of our residencies for the Converse College low-res MFA program.

Finally, my issue came in the mail last week. I’ve only dipped into it, but from what I’ve seen, this compilation is a major achievement, with a range of poetry, fiction, nonfiction (personal essays and essays of literary criticism), letters between O’Connor and Thomas Carter (then-editor of Shenandoah), a book review, and some stunning visuals.

I was moved by Rob McDonald’s photographs of the interior of O’Connor’s house: her writing desk, the crutches, and the light over her bed. The lovely sepia prints are haunting in their deceptive simplicity. Kathleen Gunton’s photos of peacocks were lush and almost surreal, especially when viewed in the context of McDonald’s vision of the house.

James L. MacLeod met O’Connor when he was a college student at Washington & Lee University in the 1950s; his father knew her mother because they were both on the board of the Red Cross and arranged the introduction. During their first meeting, MacLeod “was able to tell her how ‘smashing’ I thought her writing was. I could tell Flannery liked this. I asked if I might come alone one day to talk writing and ‘maybe other things.’” And so began an eight-year friendship, captured in these excerpts from MacLeod’s unpublished memoir.

I also liked the essay by Amy Weldon, “The Odd Girls: Flannery O’Connor and Me,” which was a lovely personal essay about growing up in the South as an “odd girl” who loves books, intertwined with the push and pull of the ever-present, all-powerful mother:

“The South so often infuriates me. But I’m part of it. And without Flannery O’Connor, I might never have been able to admit this with any ease. She’d be the last to claim any authority about the life of the Southern intellectual, the Southern woman intellectual, or the Southern odd girl. But she’s taught me ways to be all three.”

Here are a couple of enticing pieces I’ve got my eye on:

Joyce Carol Oates, “Amputee” [fiction]
Ron Rash, “The Leg You Save May Be Your Own” [fiction]
Erin McGraw, “Feminine Wiles” [nonfiction]
Stephen Gresham, “Things Darkly Buried: In Praise of ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’” [nonfiction]

Honestly, I don’t know how any writer or serious reader can pass up this examination of O’Connor. Editor R.T. Smith puts it nicely in his Editor’s Note:

“So O’Connor attracts the eccentric, the hungry, the resourceful, the disciplined, the astute, all stripes, all flavors. She wrote that her subject was ‘the action of grace in territory held largely by the Devil,’ and we are drawn there to watch him cut up and do his worst, and to watch him lose. O’Connor’s sharply etched narratives with their dark humor, pithy dialogue, desperate situations and questing principals exert a magnetic pull….She is equally adept with cracker quips and theological intricacies, with chatterboxes and flim-flam artists, enfants terrible and ancient, evangelists and eggheads, and her stories snarl and glare and breathe. While [her mother] Regina Cline O’Connor always wished her daughter would write more uplifting stories populated by nice people, Flannery has instead brought to the literary arena of our cultural conversation an erudition gracefully carried, an original sense of timing, a broad-based and complicated compassion, a nose for the dishonest, a sensitivity to the deep electricity in the language and a sharpshooter’s eye.”

Here is the website for Shenandoah where you can order a copy of the journal ($15).

Monday, July 19, 2010

Reading Moby Dick, 7: Sloooooowing Down, Distracted by Drink

It was a distracting week, followed by a distracting weekend, so I’m not all that much farther along in Moby Dick than my last report: page 396 now, with only 109 more to go. Captain Ahab—with his ivory leg—has just met the captain of a British whaling ship who has an ivory arm (with a mallet at the end), thanks to the angry white whale. Needless to say, the two men had plenty to talk about. And don’t tell me Melville wasn’t having fun with that encounter!

Poet John Guzlowski was kind enough to send along this link from the L.A. Times book blog that—in that internetish way—boils down the various qualities of post-modern fiction, with an annotated list of post-modern novels/writers, helping to support “my” theory that Moby Dick is post-modern, despite being published in pre-modern times. The comments are also interesting, with debates about whether the contemporary books we now call post-modern is actually derivative of all this innovative work (like Moby Dick) that preceded it and aren’t really breaking new ground. Also, I was gratified that someone else in the comments added Moby Dick to the list of post-modern works.

Here are two Moby Dick accoutrements that are adding to my experience:

I now have this beautiful T-shirt from Out of Print with the Rockwell Kent cover of Moby Dick.

Knowing there had to be a drink called the Moby Dick, I found this one and was willing to go with the anchovy garnish, but the drink part sounded sort of unpleasant: aquavit and sambuca. So Steve found this recipe for the Harpoon, which is a lot like a cosmo, and which I enjoyed on Saturday night (perhaps that’s why I was too tired to read from the book that night?). Bonus: If you go to the site, you’ll see that this one is good enough for Mad Men’s Don Draper, who clearly knows his way around a liquor cabinet!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Great Gatbsy Video Game

What’s next? Shooting elephants in Africa with Ernie? Here's the description from the site, where you can get a free trial:

"Spend a summer on a jazz-fueled adventure based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s legendary novel. Experience the Roaring Twenties first-hand as you uncover secrets behind the richly decadent facade. Explore one of the most tragic tales in literary history."

(Via Galleycat)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Work in Progress: Fried Chicken!

Steve and I make fried chicken once a year, for the Fourth of July. This year’s batch was particularly good, and as a result of too much bragging (by me; Steve is much more restrained) several people asked for the recipe (hi, Veronica!). I couldn’t photocopy the recipe because of how it was laid out in the cookbook, so once I committed to typing it up, I thought what could be a better—or yummier?—metaphor for work in progress than this fried chicken project of ours, which has required over the years, time, patience, learning, luck, education, some bad “drafts,” and—at last!—has resulted in sweet success.

We’re not from the South, so I probably can’t claim this is the greatest fried chicken of all time. But it’s incredibly good, and not such a ridiculous recipe that it should scare the normal home cook. And it’s the best fried chicken this girl from Iowa has ever made.

Note: the paragraph heading the recipe is from the cookbook, and my hints follow the end of the recipe.


Fried Chicken

From the Joy of Cooking, 1997 edition

This chicken has the crackling crisp skin and distinctive mahogany color that are the hallmarks of this dish as prepared by the best Southern cooks. The buttermilk marinade promotes tenderness. Use a cast-iron skillet if possible, for it allows the chicken to achieve the prized deep color without charring. Frying the chicken in vegetable shortening rather than oil gives the crust a snapping crispness and, because shortening is more highly refined than oil, the odor-causing compounds are removed and it leaves less odor in the kitchen. A final important tip: The crust will stay crisper longer if you drain the chicken on a rack rather than on a paper bag or paper towels.

Rinse and pat dry:

3 ½ to 4 pounds chicken parts

Separate the chicken legs into thighs and drumsticks; cut each breast half diagonally in half through the bone. Stir together in a large bowl:

1 ½ cups buttermilk
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper

Add the chicken and turn to coat well. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or remove the chicken and buttermilk to a sealable plastic bag. Refrigerate for 2 to 12 hours. Shake to mix in a doubled brown paper bag:

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
Pinch of red pepper (optional)

Shake the chicken a few pieces at a time in the bag until well coated. Let dry on a rack at room temperature for 15 to 30 minutes. Place a deep, heavy skillet, preferably cast iron, large enough to hold the chicken pieces in a single layer, over medium-high heat and add:

3 cups solid vegetable shortening

There should be enough shortening in the skillet to measure about ½ inch. Heat until a small corner of a chicken piece causes vigorous bubbling when dipped into the fat, about 350 degrees F on a deep-fry thermometer.

Being careful not to spatter yourself, gently lay the chicken pieces skin side down in the hot fat and cover. Cook for 10 minutes, checking after 5 minutes and moving the pieces if they are coloring unevenly or turning the heat down if the chicken is browning too quickly. (At this point, the fat should be bubbling and register between 250 degrees F and 300 degrees F on a thermometer.) Turn the chicken with tongs and cook, uncovered, until the second side is richly browned, 10 to 12 minutes more. Remove the chicken to a rack set over a baking sheet. If not serving immediately, remove the chicken, still on the rack, to an oven warmed at the lowest setting.

Chicken that is not to be served hot may be safely held at room temperature, still on the rack and loosely covered with wax paper, for several hours. It will be crisper and juicier than if chilled. Leftovers, of course, must be refrigerated. Serves 4.

Some notes from our experience:

--Temperature control is important and perhaps the most difficult variable. The oil must be neither too hot nor too cold.

--Don’t crowd the pan. We don’t have a big enough pan to fit all the pieces, so we set up two—one a cast-iron skillet, the other an All-Clad skillet—and both work well. Even so, we still have to do a second round in one of the pans to cook all these pieces.

--Sorry, but your kitchen WILL smell for a day or two. And doubly sorry, YES, making fried chicken leaves your stove and various utensils in a huge greasy mess that’s a pain to clean.

--Wings are easiest to get right; breasts are hardest. Don’t use those giant, Dolly Parton chicken breasts, or if that’s all they’ve got in the store, be sure to cut them as the recipe advises. You can buy a package of mixed parts—a whole chicken cut up—at the store.

--You’ll be surprised at how different this tastes from KFC—which I do love, but which, in contrast to this version, seems incredibly salty and processed-tasting.

--We use Crisco.

--Be safe. Remember that grease fires should be extinguished with baking soda (never water), so have an open box available, and every kitchen should have a fire extinguisher. Probably the only time you will need it is the time you DON’T have one available.

--Don’t invite anyone over…you will want these leftovers for yourself!

--Practice! We’ve made this for several years, and the chicken is getting better and better as we figure out the oil temperature situation.

--Hints and/or suggestions are welcome...send them here.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I Vant to Be Alone to Count My Royalties

Here’s an interesting piece: “In Defense of Privacy: The 20th Century’s Most Reclusive Authors.”

Proust sounds a little…intense:

“Proust, who soundproofed his studio with cork walls and installed layers of heavy curtains to keep the light out, would stay up for days on end working on his 3,200-page masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. When greeting guests, he was often unsure of whether it was day or night.”

And Harper Lee sounds delightfully and sharply gracious:

“Most recently, Lee — who at 84, is still said to handwrite polite refusals for interview requests – was accosted in Monroeville by a journalist from The Daily Mail bearing a box of chocolates. Her totally amazing response to the invasion of privacy: “We’re just going to feed the ducks, but call me the next time you are here. We have a lot of history here. You will enjoy it.”

Alas, my idol J.D. Salinger sounds a wee full of himself:

According to his family, “he believed that 'he was in this world but not of it.'”

"Love & Want & Derision in 140 Characters"

Forms of literature continue to evolve (or is it "evolve"?)…here’s a call for submissions of 140 characters:

One Forty Fiction is a website dedicated to stories that stick to a limit of 140 characters (spaces included). Stories told with beginnings, middles, and ends, and characters who want things.

But how to tell such stories in such limited space? How to create love, and want, and derision in 140 characters? How to deliver your heart?

We have no answer for you. We just know that you have 140 characters to make us see, feel, live, & yearn for the world beyond your 140.

Give us all you got. But give it to us wrapped tight, a Big Bang of a universe, a history of life itself, communicated wisely, and with love.

And if you’re feeling saucy, don’t be afraid to bring the jazz & funk.

Submit as many and as often as you like:

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Reading Moby Dick, 6: Everything You Wanted to Know about Whales but Were Afraid to Ask

I’m on page 368 and have learned a lot about whales; in fact, I’ve had more than one dream about whales. I’m in the midst of what people who bemoan the book might remember as “all that long boring crap about whales.” From time to time, I find these passages a little slow, but overall, I’m still totally engaged by this book.

In particular, I was moved at the way Melville juxtaposed several of these beautiful, insightful chapters about the whale with the horrible chase and capture of the old, feeble, crippled whale…which then sank, unusable to the crew.

I’m no expert on these matters, but this might be the first post-modern American novel. Melville uses the following bells-and-whistles to contribute to the telling of his story:

--etymology of the word “whale”
--a section of literary allusions to whales
--the format of a play
--intense factual exploration of one subject
--categories and lists
--stories within the story, including tales
--direct address to the reader
--obsession merging as form and content
--tricks with point of view

The point of view is the most interesting to me as it’s technically first person (“Call me Ishmael”), yet Ishmael freely reports direct dialogue and conversations that he is not present to hear and he seems to know a LOT about whales, beyond what we might assume someone of his background to know (though I guess we don’t know much at all about his background).

Any classroom writing workshop would be all over this—“Ishmael can’t know what Ahab is saying to himself while he’s alone on the deck; we need more about Ishmael’s family history to understand how he’s so smart and different than these other sailors”—and yet I don’t think this way at all as I’m reading. As they say, writing is always a little bit easier if you’re a genius….

Speaking of genius, here’s a fun fact about Moby Dick from the foreword to my edition: The book was completed in eighteen months of "feverish writing" and published in 1851 when Melville was thirty-one years old. !!

Monday, July 12, 2010


In honor of the major (and distracting) tree work being done around here (bye-bye, mulberry with your mice-attracting berries!), I refer you to Robert Frost’s marvelous poem, “Birches.”

"…I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches."

And don’t worry—more on my progress with Moby Dick in the coming week, and, just for fun, a fabulous fried chicken recipe!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Guest in Progress: Joe Schuster on "20 Over 40"

This is another story of how small the writing world is (be nice, people!) and the miracle of Facebook: I met the wonderful fiction writer Joe Schuster at Bread Loaf way back when, and after losing touch, we reconnected on Facebook. Happily so, as I’m pleased to present this smart, thoughtful—and dare I say inspirational?—response to the New Yorker’s recent list of writers who are all under 40 years old. If you’re “of a certain age”—or worried that you weren’t on “the list”—take heart, and check out Joe’s list of writers who first published their books later in life.

Twenty Over Forty
When magazines like The New Yorker publish lists of young writers to watch, they ignore the fact that a writing career is more of a marathon than it is a sprint.

By Joe Schuster

In June 1999, the Arizona Diamondbacks chose a shortstop named Corey Myers with the fourth pick in the first round of that year's baseball draft. In all, the thirty major league franchises chose more than 1,470 players in the draft that summer and, with its choice of Myers, the Diamondbacks essentially proclaimed him the fourth best amateur player in the U.S. Playing for Phoenix's Desert Vista High School, that year Myers had set a state high school record for home runs in a season, with 22; he also held the state record for most home runs in a high school career. His prodigious offensive statistics convinced Arizona to give him a $2 million bonus just for signing a contract.

Meanwhile, in the thirteenth round of that draft eleven years ago, as the 402nd player anyone selected, the St. Louis Cardinals chose another infielder, this one from Maple Woods Community College near Kansas City: Albert Pujols.

If you pay even slight attention to baseball, you know that Pujols may be the best player today. Since arriving in the major leagues in 2001, he has won his league's Most Valuable Player Award three times, something that only seven other players have managed in the eighty years since the Baseball Writers of America began making the award. In nine of his ten seasons so far, including this one, he's been a member of the All Star team.

Myers, on the other hand, never made it to the major leagues. He spent nine years in the minor leagues, playing for teams in baseball's hinterlands, in towns like Lancaster, California, South Bend, Indiana, and Little Rock, Arkansas, and then left the game. If you do a Google search for him, one of the top hits is a query someone posted two years ago, asking if anyone knew how to contact him. No one has replied.


In a way, a publication like the recent New Yorker summer fiction issue is something like the baseball draft. Titled "Twenty Under Forty," this year's special issue anoints a score of writers as those the editors feel "are, or will be, key to their generation."

It's not the first time the magazine has celebrated the work of younger writers in this fashion. Eleven years ago—the same summer the Diamondbacks were deciding that Corey Myers was, by a rough magnitude of 100, a far better prospect than Albert Pujols—the magazine called its fiction issue, "The Future of American Fiction," and named twenty writers under forty "the best young fiction writers in America today." Among others, that list included Jhumpa Lahiri, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Interpreter of Maladies the next year, Michael Chabon (Pulitzer, 2001, Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay), Jonathan Franzen (National Book Award, 2001, The Corrections), Junot Diaz (Pulitzer, 2008, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) as well as Rick Moody, the late David Foster Wallace, Antonya Nelson and Ethan Canin.

While certainly a number of them are important today, and a number of those the magazine cited this summer may become so in the next decade or so—several have already published celebrated books, including Joshua Ferris, Jonathan Safran Foer and ZZ Packer—there are several problems with any enterprise like this.

(Before I go further, I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that any of the writers on this year's list or the one from 1999 do not merit celebration. Writing brilliantly—even writing well—is difficult and any means we have to recognize excellence is a good thing.)

The first problem is that by publishing such a list, the magazine seems to imply that no one outside the list is or will be a significant writer. However, as the Arizona Diamondbacks discovered—and as major league teams discover every year when they give seven-figure checks to prospects who never produce as their teams expect, predicting the future is nearly impossible. Any of the writers that The New Yorker deemed "key to their generation" may decide tomorrow, "Writing, schmiting, I want to devote my life to making the Olympic team as a curler."

Even if they all forsake curling and stick it out as writers, sitting down at their PC or their Mac Powerbook or iPad every day for the next thirty years or so, some may never publish again or may publish little. Roughly a quarter of a century ago, in 1986, Debra Spark edited an anthology with similar aims, one with even more strict parameters: Twenty under Thirty. Some of those writers who were then in their twenties have had significant success, among them Lorrie Moore, Bret Lott, David Leavitt, Mona Simpson, and Robin Hemley. If, however, you search the Amazon catalogue for some of the writers Spark decided to include, you will turn up not a single title. The fact that they perhaps never published a book does not mean she was wrong in recognizing their work –if you write and try to publish, you know that it's a complicated, difficult business.

The most significant problem with lists like these however—lists that celebrate younger writers to the exclusion of anyone nearer eligibility for an AARP card or senior discounts at Denny's—is that they suggest (and here I borrow a cliché players often use when they talk about a baseball season) that a career as a writer is something of a sprint, rather than the marathon it is. While clearly some writers do have early success and see success for decades after that, for a good number of writers, success comes more slowly. Perhaps they came to writing later; perhaps they raised children or faced other demands from family or work that kept them away from their desks; perhaps they struggled to find the confidence to send their work out for publication; perhaps it took them years or decades to find their voice or a story that compelled them enough to keep working at it days on end, draft after draft, to give the story the proper respect it merited; perhaps it took them a long time of dedication to their work and years of rejection before they found an editor who saw the value in their work and decided to publish it.

This year, for example, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction went to a small book, Tinkers, issued by a small press associated with a New York hospital. It was the debut of a writer over forty, Paul Harding, who, before the first copy came off a press, reportedly endured six years and "a raft of rejections" as the New York Times put it in its story about the prize. The problem, as the story goes, was not that his book wasn't good—it was that the agents and commercial publishers he approached thought it was too slow and contemplative for contemporary tastes. Harding told the Times reporter that the publishers asked, "Where are the car chases?"

Several times this decade, in fact, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction has gone to writers who never showed up on any list of the "best under forty" and who, in fact, didn't publish their first book until they were past forty. Last year, Elizabeth Strout (born 1956) was honored for the marvelous Olive Kitteridge. While, unlike Harding, it was not her first book, like him, she was past forty when she published her first, Amy and Isabelle (1998). Six years ago, Edward P. Jones (born 1951) won the Pulitzer Prize for his first novel, the stunning The Known World; like Strout, he had published a book previously, the PEN/Hemingway award winning Lost in the City, and also like Strout and Harding, he was past forty when that first book came out. While Geraldine Books (born 1955), who won the prize in 2006, for March, did publish a book before she was forty, Nine Parts of Desire (1994), it was a work of nonfiction and her first novel, Year of Wonders, appeared seven years later, (2001.)

(Just as I don't intend to suggest that the writers in any of these lists of literary wunderkind don't deserve recognition, I also don't want to suggest that prizes like the Pulitzer or the National Book Award are the only measure of success—they are simply a convenient measure.)

Whether we're twenty when we publish our first book, or forty or fifty or, like Peter Ferry who published his first novel, Travel Writing, when he was 62, or in our eighties like Myrrah Stanford-Smith who this June signed a three-book contract with an English publisher, the truth is that writing takes as long as it takes. Norman Mailer reportedly wrote his masterpiece The Naked and the Dead in fifteen months and published it when he was 25. After his success with his collection, Lost in the City, Edward P. Jones needed another ten years before he could produce The Known World. Neither book is better than the other simply because of how much or how little time it took the author to get it out of himself; neither book has the merit it does because the author was younger than X years or older than Y when he wrote and published it. A book takes what a book takes.

Twenty Over Forty:

As a complement to The New Yorker's, "Twenty Under Forty," here is a list of twenty fiction writers who published their first book when they were past 40. The list is merely representative (and includes only fiction writers)—I am not saying these are the best writers who published their first books after forty, merely that these twenty men and women represent the vast numbers of writers that lists like the New Yorker's "Twenty under Forty" exclude, writers who worked for decades when no was noticing them, when few aside from their spouses/significant others and friends encouraged them, when, in many cases, they sat down at a computer or a table in a coffee shop with a legal pad and number two pencil and wrote without any notion they'd make a dime from it, wrote simply because something compelled them to put one word after another.

I have listed each author alphabetically, the year he or she was born, the title of his or her first book, the year it appeared, and also added a note about any prizes that book received or a subsequent celebrated work.

Richard Adams (1920), Watership Down, 1972.
Robin Black (1962), If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, 2010
Raymond Chandler (1888), The Big Sleep, 1939
K.L. Cook, (1964), Last Call, 2004 (Prairie Schooner Book Prize)
Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) (1885), Seven Gothic Tales, 1934.
Harriet Doerr, (1910), Stones for Ibarra, 1984 (National Book Award)
Clyde Edgerton (1944), Raney, 1985; Edgerton has published nine novels after he turned 40.
Peter Ferry (1946), Travel Writing, 2008
Charles Frazier (1950), Cold Mountain, 1997 (National Book Award)
Julia Glass, (1956), Three Junes, 2002 (National Book Award)
William Golding (1911), Lord of the Flies, 1954
Paul Harding (1967), Tinkers, 2009 (Pulitzer Prize)
Kent Haruf (1943), The Tie That Binds, 1984; Plainsong, 1999, National Book Award Finalist
Edward P. Jones (1951), Lost in the City, 1992 (PEN/Hemingway Award): The Known World, Pulitzer Prize, 2004.
Tillie Olsen (1912), Tell Me a Riddle, 1961; Olsen may well have turned up on
a list of "Twenty under Thirty" if one had existed. After she published a story in the
Partisan Review in 1934, Random House gave her a book contract. Because of demands of family, and other reasons, she abandoned it until decades later. It's appropriate then that one of her books, Silences, was a nonfiction consideration of writers block and other obstacles to writing.
Walker Percy (1916). The Moviegoer, 1961 (National Book Award)
E. Annie Proulx (1935), Heartsongs and Other Stories, 1988; The Shipping News, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, 1994
Carol Shields 1935), Small Ceremonies, 1976; The Stone Diaries, Pulitzer Prize, 1995
Elizabeth Strout (1956), Amy and Isabelle 1998; Olive Kitteridge, Pulitzer Prize, 2009)
William Wharton (1925), Birdy, 1978; in all, Wharton published eight novels after he was 50

About: Joe Schuster
has published short fiction in The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review and Western Humanities Review, among other journals. He is chair of the Department of Communications and Journalism at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri. Already eligible for membership in the AARP, he has spent the last nine years writing and revising a novel, "Everything He Might Have Been," that he finally feels is good enough to send out. He lives next to a bird sanctuary in a distant suburb of St. Louis, is married and the father of five and grandfather of one. You can read his novel-in-progreess here, though please note that the first paragraph is a brief summary of previous action.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Reading Moby Dick, 5: The Universe Conspires...

When you’re reading Moby Dick, apparently the universe conspires to show you the importance of the book: I got an email this morning from the Ann Taylor clothing store announcing new arrivals in “lush colors and watercolor prints inspired by the sea.”

Here’s what Ishmael and Ahab could be wearing.

Ahab has announced his obsession with the white whale, and the crew has been inspired to take on this fool’s mission as their own. There’s leadership for you.

Here’s Ishmael’s observation about this turn of events:

“Here, then, was this grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job’s whale round the world, at the head of a crew, too, chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals—morally enfeebled also, by the incompetence of mere unaided virtue or right-mindedness in Starbuck [the first mate], the invulnerable jollity of indifference and recklessness in Stubb [the second mate], and the pervading mediocrity in Flask [the third mate]. Such a crew, so officered, seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him to his monomaniac revenge.”

Or picked by a masterful writer….

If you’re getting bored with Moby Dick, come back tomorrow for a great guest piece inspired by The New Yorker’s "20 Under 40" list of fiction writers (hey, why don’t they ever do a list of poets…could it be because most of the poets they publish are well over 40?).

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Reading Moby Dick, 4: Nantucket

I’m now on page 149, having just gotten through the classification of various types of whales, which was interesting, especially given the wry remarks the author often inserted. Of the “Sulphur Bottom,” Melville wrote, “He is never chased; he would run away with rope-walks of line. Prodigies are told of him. Adieu, Sulphur Bottom! I can say nothing more that is true of ye, nor can the oldest Nantucketer.”

Here’s a picture.

Indeed, I’ll probably be looking up several different pictures; how wonderful it would be to be reading an illustrated edition (if such a thing exists; if it doesn’t, it should).

And speaking of Nantucket, I loved this description, early on, when Ishmael and Queequeg arrive on the island:

“Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse. Look at it—a mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background. There is more sand there than you would use in twenty years as a substitute for blotting paper. Some gamesome wights will tell you that they have to plant weeds there, they don’t grow naturally; that they import Canada thistles; that they have to send beyond seas for a spile to stop a leak in an oil cask; that pieces of wood in Nantucket are carried about like bits of the true cross in Rome; that people there plant toadstools before their houses, to get under the sake in summer time; that one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day’s walk a prairie; that they wear quicksand shoes, something like Laplander snowshoes; that they are so shut up, belted about, every way inclosed, surrounded, and made an utter island of by the ocean, that to their very chairs and tables small clams will sometimes be found adhering, as to the backs of sea turtles. But these extravaganzas only show that Nantucket is no Illinois.”

What a great way to close off that paragraph!

Here are my recent impressions of Nantucket, for contrast, though I would agree that it still “is no Illinois.”

Monday, July 5, 2010

Reading Moby Dick, 3

I'm a little worried that Ishmael and Queequeg have not yet met the captain of the ship they have signed up with for a THREE YEAR journey. Doesn't seem wise. Also unwise: ignoring a beggar named Elijah...people with symbolic names should always be paid attention to.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Reading Moby Dick, 2

Right after my last note about how much I was loving the book, I hit a 10ish-page sermon relating to Jonah and the whale. I thought about skipping it, but instead read 2 pages and fell asleep. Off to try again....

Related note: Wonder what will happen to my google search results with that headline?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Guest in Progress: Philip Belcher on "The Word"

I’m in the throes of revising my historical novel, focusing presently on “the perfect word” and slipping in those short, artful sentences that also pull forward a nest of thematic threads. (Hmmm—nest AND threads…that sure wasn’t a good example of what I’m trying to do in the novel!) The point is, I’m working on the Word Level of revision, and so naturally I was attracted to this piece by Philip Belcher, one of the fabulous Converse College MFA poetry students.

Philip is a smart guy, an excellent poet, asks great questions after the craft lectures, and is always the one to sit with at lunch when you’re having a crappy day because he’s also incredibly kind. He wrote this piece originally in his “real life” job as President of the Mary Black Foundation, a private foundation serving Spartanburg County, South Carolina. I liked it so much that I asked if I could also post it here. He's so nice, that he said yes!

The Word
By Philip Belcher

One of my favorite segments of The Colbert Report is “The Word.” In this part of his program, Stephen Colbert unleashes a barrage of satire based on a particular word or phrase. Colbert’s verbal dexterity is always impressive and usually both biting and laugh-out-loud funny. The most interesting segments are those in which Colbert reveals how particular words are misused, often purposefully.

During the first two weeks of June, I spent a lot of time around people who love thinking deeply about language. As a student in Converse College’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program, I attended one of the semi-annual 10-day residencies. During the residencies, language is paramount. In the poetry workshops—my home during these literary boot camps—faculty and students pay attention to every word in the poem under consideration. Every word must have a reason for being on the page. If it doesn’t, it’s got to go. Workshop participants consider the music of the written words and both their denotative and connotative meanings. If you use the word “legion,” you’d better know that it not only means many but has a military connotation and that it contains, for some, a biblical allusion.

I don’t spend every day in a poetry workshop and am often careless with language. I’m not alone, of course, and I wonder what might change if we all paid more attention to what we say and how we say it. I care about this because I continue to believe that the spoken and written word have power to change minds and culture—for good and for ill. The English translation of the Gospel of John begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Who, after a single hearing, can ever forget Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech? Who among us is not reminded of the terror of the Third Reich when we hear the word Führer, even though the word in German means “guide” or “leader”? Words are powerful, and we should use them with care.

By nature, I am impatient. That may not be the best quality for the president of a foundation working to improve the health of a community. Health improvement often takes decades. Still, in the foundation’s efforts to bring physical activity back into the daily life of our community and to improve the quality of early childhood development, the incremental pace of change in Spartanburg County frustrates me to no end. Our civic dance too often is two steps forward, three steps back. We take great pride in the fact that we’re dancing at all and forget that other communities have already learned to waltz. Some even tango. And I cannot help but think that Spartanburg’s choreography is connected to, if not determined by, the language we use: how we talk about ourselves, how we talk about others, and what we learn about our fellow citizens’ fears and aspirations by the words they choose to use.

As I continue thinking about community change and its connection to language, here’s my commitment. I promise to think more before I speak or write. I promise to stop labeling those who disagree with me. I promise to push for specificity when I hear, or use, generalities. I promise to avoid jargon and the language of boosterism, asking instead for honesty and clarity. I promise to listen.

I promise. You have my word. ~~Philip Belcher

About: Philip Belcher has published poems in a variety of poetry journals, including most recently Free Lunch, Iodine Poetry Journal, and Shenandoah. In 2005, he won the Porter Fleming Writing Competition Prize in Poetry. He was also selected as the 2006 South Carolina Poetry Fellow Alternate by the South Carolina Arts Commission. In 2007, Philip’s chapbook, The Flies and Their Lovely Names, was published by Stepping Stones Press. In 2008, Philip attended the Sewanee Writers Conference. He is a student in the low residency MFA program in creative writing (poetry) at Converse College and will be working with Sarah Kennedy during fall semester 2010.

Since March 2000, Philip has served as President of the Mary Black Foundation, a private foundation serving Spartanburg County, South Carolina. Formerly the Associate Director of the Health Care Division of The Duke Endowment in Charlotte, N.C., Philip is a graduate of Furman University, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the Duke University School of Law. Prior to joining The Duke Endowment in 1998, he was a partner in the law firm of Parker, Poe, Adams & Bernstein in Charlotte, N.C.


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