Thursday, June 30, 2011

Work in Progress: I Have Nothing to Say

Rather, I have only a few short things to say:

I’m surprised to feel resistant to revising some first drafts that I wrote way back in the spring. It’s not that I feel they’re finished—oh, haha, so very, very far from that—but I think that I’ve become slightly addicted to the thrill of the first draft, the excitement of discovering what happens next, of watching the story unfold under your hand. In revision, there’s a little excitement as the story shifts and changes, but basically I know what happens. Does this mean I’m bored? Does this mean the story is boring? No wonder revision isn’t so fun when these are the questions spinning in my head.

I still love what one of my favorite writing teachers, Richard Bausch, used to say: “Write until something surprises you.” Lucky for me I don’t have to pay him a royalty every time I say that in a class!

I wrote by hand the other day, and it was interesting how much less I worried about which word was exactly right; it just seemed more urgent to get down any word at all before my hand started to cramp up. Writing on the computer is often start-and-stop, whereas writing by hand felt like an uninterrupted flow.

Just when I think that maybe I should save time and $$ by giving up The New Yorker, I read two amazing pieces: Alice Munro’s short story “Gravel” and Aleksander Hemon’s essay “The Aquarium.” Interestingly, neither is one of my favorite writers (in fact, I may actively be irritated by one of these two), though I guiltily believe that I should like their work. It’s always nice to have one’s eyes opened.  The Alice Munro story is online, but the Hemon essay is not.
Does anyone else get sad when replacing and updating an address book? (Does anyone besides me even continue to use a hand-written address book?)

The lesson for the day is JUST BEGIN. When I sat down to write this blog post, I thought I had nothing to say, and in the act of forcing myself to begin, I found something. It may not be much, but “not much” will always trump “nothing”!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Link Corral: Beasley & Carson Readings; Experts Galore; No-Fee Novel Contest

Sandra Beasley, who wrote last week’s great post about perfectionism, will be reading from her new memoir, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life on Saturday, July 23, 2011, at Politics and Prose Bookstore, in Washington, DC.

Details are here:


Tom Carson, who wrote here  about his new Gatsby-inspired novel, Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter, will be reading from the book on Sunday, July 24, at Politics and Prose Bookstore, in Washington, DC.

Details are here:

Someone on Facebook recently recommended this site for finding people—experts!—who can help you research your historical novel or read it over for glaring inaccuracies:

I can’t vouch for it personally, but it seems like a good resource for writers. And not just for historical research…there are a zillion categories of various experts.

This no-fee contest for a novel looks great:

ANDERBO SEEKS NOVELIST (by September 21st, 2011) for its 2nd Biannual No-Fee Novel Contest

The Mercer Street Books Fiction Prize wishes to post up to the first 36 manuscript pages of an unpublished novel on its website by December 21st, 2011 for at least the following six months. We will look at the FIRST 36 PAGES (up to 9,000 words) of your e-manuscript submitted to (replace (at) with @ in sending e-mail) and decide within 60 days of its arrival if we want to see more.


THERE IS NO READING FEE and all literary rights will remain with the author.


This contest is not open to anyone previously published on at any time.

This Anderbo No-Fee Novel Contest will be judged by the editorial staff; Anderbo guarantees to choose and use one manuscript-excerpt. There will be an honorarium of $500 paid by the sponsor of this contest, Mercer Street Books & Records, to the winning author upon publication on Anderbo.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Seven Random Things

I was tagged by writer Marty Rhodes Figley (whose too-funny blog is found at, so here are seven random things about me:

1. I’m really great at packing a car for a road trip. I can fit any suitcase anywhere. This is genetic, as both my sister and father are also supremely skilled at packing a car. I bet my father could pack the contents of a house neatly into a Volkswagen.

2. I’m allergic to fresh pineapple—but not canned. Now you know how to kill me. (Actually, you don’t: now you know how to make my face immediately turn blotchy and itchy and my eyes swell almost shut.)

3. The first story I wrote (and, naturally, illustrated) on my own was titled “Seagull,” about two orphans traveling the world with some sort of magic dolls.

4. In eighth grade I was briefly in a school mime troupe, and there may still exist a photograph of me looking dorky in full mime whiteface.

5. I bought a first edition copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in a secondhand bookstore for a couple bucks.

6. Once, at an all-you-can-eat salad buffet, I ate 50 shrimp. Then I had a steak. And dessert. This was after an all-day hike in the desert mountains, but still.

7. I had a secret crush on Ethan Allen, leader of the Green Mountain Boys.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Present Tense: Friend or Foe?

I’ve been working on a story and realized that it probably should be in the present tense, which panicked me, since everyone “knows” the present tense is hard to manage and makes everyone sound like robots knocking around on a stage filled with mirrors endlessly reflecting each other. (“She gets in her car and turns the key. She backs out of the driveway. She wonders if her credit card will go through or if there will be an embarrassing scene at the grocery store.”) For a few moments, the best I could contemplate about this present tense story was that at least it was in the third person, not the first person.

On the other hand, I knew I had to use present tense, so I dutifully combed through my computer file deleting all the “ed’s,” preparing for the bigger battle to come. How to make the present tense work?

Here’s how: post something about the present tense on Facebook that the amazing Robin Black happens to see (author of If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This) which by happy and lucky coincidence for me motivates her to write a terrific blog post about the present tense for the Beyond the Margins blog which she kindly sent to me.

If you’re a present tense doubter, read what she says and then decide. And if you love the present tense, read what she says because I know she’ll show you how to make the present tense work more effectively in your stories. And then offer an opinion about cilantro, which I happen to love-love-love!

From Robin’s post:

“One of my newest crusades (stay tuned for a post defending adverbs) is to convince the world that there are no bad craft elements, only not such great uses of them…..In other words, present tense is no more or less constricting than past. It has its purposes and its limitations. And as with so many other writing elements – point of view being the other big one – the choice of tense for a story has more to do with the best way to tell that particular story than with whether in the abstract one prefers one form of storytelling over another.”

Pertinent links:
Read the post here:

Are you joking? You still don’t have a copy of Robin’s book when you know how much I love it?! Buy it here:

Here’s a great recipe if you like cilantro:

And another:

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Guest in Progress: Sandra Beasley on Perfectionism

The fabulous and fabulously talented Sandra Beasley’s memoir will be coming out in July. Here’s the description of Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life:

"Like twelve million other Americans, Sandra Beasley suffers from food allergies. Her allergies—severe and lifelong—include dairy, egg, soy, beef, shrimp, pine nuts, cucumbers, cantaloupe, honeydew, mango, macadamias, pistachios, cashews, swordfish, and mustard. Add to that mold, dust, grass and tree pollen, cigarette smoke, dogs, rabbits, horses, and wool, and it’s no wonder Sandra felt she had to live her life as “Allergy Girl.” When butter is deadly and eggs can make your throat swell shut, cupcakes and other treats of childhood are out of the question—and so Sandra’s mother used to warn guests against a toxic, frosting-tinged kiss with “Don’t kill the birthday girl!”

"It may seem that such a person is “not really designed to survive,” as one blunt nutritionist declared while visiting Sandra’s fourth-grade class. But Sandra has not only survived, she’s thrived—now an essayist, editor, and award-winning poet, she has learned to navigate a world in which danger can lurk in an unassuming corn chip. Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl is her story."

Having loved Sandra’s gorgeous poetry in her second book, I Was the Jukebox, I’m very much looking forward to reading her memoir, which I’m predicting will be a Big Book. How does someone get two books of poetry and a memoir written (and published) in less than ten years? Perhaps a clue (and a warning) can be found in the following blog post—which originally appeared on Sandra’s—yes, I must say it!—fabulous!! blog, Chicks Dig Poetry, on May 9, 2009. (Links to books, blogs, and more below.)

Strangely Perfect, Perfectly Strange
by Sandra Beasley

At 3:47 A.M. last night, if you'd been looking for me, I could be found puttering around my apartment. I had things to do: watching an episode of The West Wing. Plucking yellow leaves off a peace lily. Pouring a dollop of Bluecoat gin, pulled from the freezer, into an already full martini ("martini" = redeeming olive).

So help me God, I am a perfectionist. If you've escaped that fate, it may not be obvious how all of these pursuits (each obviously inferior to, um, sleep) are spokes on the perfectionist wheel. I'll explain.

Some time ago I discovered that if you happen to be up at 3 A.M. on a given weeknight, you can probably find a re-run of The West Wing on Bravo. Ever since then, once it's 2:56 I become a lost cause. Even if my eyes are already half-shut, I will pry them open to stay up and tune in. My love for the show can be traced directly to Aaron Sorkin's dialogue. Every damn character is meticulous--whether it be in their politics, their ethics, their addiction to witty banter, or their martyrdom. Every sentence is polished to a golden glow; if you are right you will be perfectly right, if you are wrong you will be perfectly wrong, and if you are vague it will be a mists of vaguedom so thick and diffractively glorious as to spawn rainbows.

Realistic? No. But West Wing dialogue is crack to a perfectionist.

Exhibit B: To a perfectionist's eye, a room-temperature martini is a fatally flawed martini. So even though I'd stopped actually drinking a good hour before, I freshened it up with cold gin from the freezer, so that the glass once more assumed its glaze of frost. That was the last time I touched it until I dumped it in the sink before bed.

Besides being wasteful with reasonably expensive liquor, perfectionists adopt sadistic attitudes toward innocent plants. Take the peace lily, which was completely wilted to the floor upon my return from a holiday-weekend road trip. The moment I'd noticed it, I got out a trash bag and picked it up to pitch it. Give it a cup of water, pled my boyfriend. It could come back. I looked at him suspiciously. Clearly this plant was broken. Not only that, it's presence in the living room was raising the big red flag of bad housewifery--I hadn't even thought about watering it before leaving town. I couldn't take the reminder of my failure. Give it a day, he said.

Come around 3:20 A.M. (as Josh is worrying over Stackhouse's third-party candidacy), I hear a rustling sound. I look over, and--lo and behold, the peace lily is visibly perking up.

Do I sit back, bless my boyfriend's patience, and enjoy the Lazarus show? Nope. I become fixated on the dozen or so irreversibly yellow leaves. I stalk over, hunker down, and start stripping them off with my bare hands. It's not easy. They're wilty, but still kin-flesh to the plant. I'm become some barbarian, dragging maidens off by their long, soft hair even as they try to cling to their families.

Once I'm done, what remains is a plant free of any but the most perfect, glossy green leaves. And, probably, severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

As a writer, perfectionism offers a lot of benefits. I am dedicated to pushing ahead on revisions. I don't lose things. I meet deadlines. But the next time someone says I wish I had your drive I'm going to be honest and say, Seriously, dude, you wouldn't wish for it at 4 A.M.

About: Sandra Beasley is the author of I Was the Jukebox, winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize; Theories of Falling, winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize; and the memoir Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life. Honors for her work include selection for the 2010 Best American Poetry, the University of Mississippi Summer Poet in Residence position, a DCCAH Individual Artist Fellowship, the Friends of Literature Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and the Maureen Egen Exchange Award from Poets & Writers. She lives in Washington, D.C., where her prose has appeared in the Washington Post Magazine.

Pertinent links:

About Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl:

Direct to buy Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl:

Book trailer (very fabulous!):

More about the fabulous Sandra Beasley:

Sandra’s fabulous blog:

Because now I'm dying for a martini, Bluecoat gin (also fabulous):

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Carolyn Parkhurst: "The World's Most Awesome Novelist"

My friend and fellow writing group member Carolyn Parkhurst has put together the most hilarious and clever book trailer to celebrate her new novel, The Nobodies Album, which has just been issued in paperback.  The video is less than three minutes, and I know you’ll laugh.

Read more about Carolyn here (as well as enjoy an opportunity to buy items from the “Carolyn Parkhurst Collection” as seen in the video!):

If you haven’t spent all your money on items from the “Carolyn Parkhurst Collection,” you can buy the book here:

Direct link to the book trailer:

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dan Wakefield's Workshop in PA

My dear friend and Converse Low-Res MFA non-fiction colleague Dan Wakefield is teaching a weekend class at a beautiful and restful Quaker retreat center fifteen minutes from Philly. I haven’t taken a class from him per se, but the Converse non-fiction students are absolutely devoted to him, and I’ve learned so much from his craft lectures and in conversation with him.  I have no doubt that he's an inspiring and smart teacher.

Check out his workshop:

Creating from the Spirit
July 10-14, 2011 (four nights)

Write, draw, listen to music, meditate on natural objects to evoke and expand your natural creativity. Break the myth of alcohol and drugs as stimulants to creativity, and experience clarity as the key. Gain access to ideas, stories, and new life directions. Learn to break "the creative slump."

$620/private room; $515/shared room; $395/commuter.

And if you don’t know Dan’s work, you should. New York in the Fifties is one of my favorite memoirs! But here’s his official bio:

Dan Wakefield is a novelist, journalist, and screenwriter who has led workshops in spiritual autobiography and creativity at churches, synagogues, adult education centers, retreat centers, health spas, and prisons throughout the United States, Mexico, and Northern Ireland.

You can get more details about the workshop here:

More details about Pendle Hill, the Quaker retreat/conference center are here:

Read about Dan Wakefield here:

And because I think it’s so cool to have one of these, here’s his IMDb profile:

Monday, June 20, 2011

Link Corral: Tom Perrotta on Flannery O’Connor; Robin Black Again(!); Ann Patchett; and Amanda Hocking

I was introduced to Thoughtcast, a site that features interviews with authors, intellectuals, and academics on a variety of focused topics. Here’s the newest addition:

“Tom Perrotta, the author of Little Children, Election, The Abstinence Teacher and the upcoming novel The Leftovers, speaks with ThoughtCast about a writer who fascinates, irritates and inspires him: Flannery O’Connor.

"His relationship with her borders on kinship, and he admires and admonishes her as he would a family member, with whom he shares a bond both genetic and cultural.

"When asked to choose a specific piece of writing that’s had a significant impact on him, Tom chose O’Connor’s short story 'Good Country People,' but then he threw in two others — 'Everything that Rises Must Converge' and 'Revelation.' As Tom explains, these three stories chart O’Connor’s careful trajectory, her unique vision, and her genius.”

Listen here (and check out previous programs):

Friend/writer Beth Kephart has succumbed to the spell of Robin Black’s If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, the collection of short stories I feel compelled to force upon everyone I know:

"It had gone on too long. "Robin Black," I kept hearing. "Robin Black's short stories." Urged to read Black by writing friends whose taste I trust, I finally and at long last did, savoring a story or two from her debut collection, "If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This," each day, thinking about her characters in crowded places or while almost alone on this or another strange and unfamiliar street. …Her stories wedge inside and stay."

Read more:

Buy this fantastic book (if you haven’t already):


Ann Patchett seems like a handful in this quick Washington Post interview—and self-publishing millionaire Amanda Hocking seems refreshingly down-to-earth in this New York Times Magazine profile.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Guest in Progress: Dan Elish on Book Promotion, YouTube-Style

Nothing makes me happier than announcing that my dear friend Dan Elish has a new book for young readers—the title alone makes me happy: The School for the Insanely Gifted. Dan is immensely talented, writing for kids, adults, and the Broadway stage! Check out his advice for promoting a book with a video—definitely check out his YouTube video—and super-definitely, check out the new book! Pertinent links are below.

Five Tips for Making a Really Cool YouTube Video to Promote Your Book
By Dan Elish

I had a great time writing my book, The School for the Insanely Gifted. A middle grade novel, the book tells the tale of Daphna Whispers (musical genius), Harken Thunkenreiser (mechanical genius) , Cynthia Trustwell (genius actress), and the other students at the prestigious Blatt School for the Insanely Gifted in New York City. In no particular order, the story involves a flying car made out of four cabs and a bus, a chewing gum computer, a journey to a hidden village in the crevices of Kilimanjaro, a Broadway musical called The Dancing Doberman, an extremely strange bad guy, and a gaggle of insane students who ultimately save the day for gifted children everywhere.

The School for the Insanely Gifted is my seventh novel for younger readers. In the past, I have mostly been content to let the publisher’s publicity departments do their thing and hope for the best. But this time, I thought I’d try to do something more creative. I mean, I have lots of friends on Facebook – why not try and use the social media to get out the word?

My first idea was to make a fake website for the made-up school featured in the book: The Blatt School for the Insanely Gifted. (You can check it out at With the help of a good friend who is a web designer, the site came out well, but was it the type of thing that people would send around the internet?

No, I needed something that could go viral! First, I thought of recording every student in my daughter’s school reading out loud from the first chapter. But then my wife got a better idea: why not write a song about the book and make a youtube video? To make a long story short, that’s what I did. Not only was it a blast to do, I think it might really help spread the word. And it was easier than I might have thought. Here’s what I did:

1. This might be the hard part. Years ago, I moved to New York to write musicals, which means that the idea of writing a short original song didn’t seem overwhelming to me. But if the idea of writing something original seems too intimidating, you can always rewrite the lyrics to something popular. That might work even better. Try to make the lyrics describe the book as wittily as you can. This is important: Be sure to put in lines that are conducive to being illustrated in a video. Specific, funny images are key.

2. Record the song. This part costs a little money. I booked a small recording studio, lined up two friends who can sing and recorded the song. All told, it took two and a half hours. If you can’t play a musical instrument, ask a friend, do it a capella, or use a karaoke track.

3. Originally, I thought I’d have to pay someone a small fortune to make the actual video for me. Then I discovered all the cool stuff you can do on I-Movie, which allows you to synch your video and photos precisely to the corresponding lyric in your song. I-Movie also has a lot of neat bells and whistles (fun titles and graphics) that were fun to throw into the mix. If you aren’t a Mac user, there are loads of movie software programs you can download that essentially do the same thing.

4. Now that’s it’s done, download your video onto youtube. Again, I thought that this would be hard. It isn’t. I-Movie shows you exactly how to get your video online.

5. Then promote! I assume that most of you have a bunch of friends on Facebook and Twitter. Well, the day The School for the Insanely Gifted comes out (June 22nd), I’m going to ask everyone I know to send the video to everyone they know. Hopefully, there will be some sort of snowball effect.

So what are you waiting for? Finish your book, then shoot your video. Here’s mine:

I hope you like it. Won’t you help promote my career by sending it to everyone you know?

About: Dan Elish wrote the book to the musical 13 which played at the Mark Taper Forum and won the 2007 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for best production; he was also nominated for best writing. 13 went on to play on Broadway at the Jacobs Theater in the fall and winter of 2008. Dan is also the author of nine novels, including The School for the Insanely Gifted (for kids), Nine Wives (for grown-up types), and Born Too Short, which won a 2004 International Reading Association Students’ Choice Award for young adult literature. Dan has also written music and lyrics for six musicals, scripts for TV (notably Cyberchase and The Wonder Pets), and has won scholarships and fellowships to The Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild and lives in New York with his wife and two children.

Pertinent links:


YouTube video:

Order the book from Amazon:

Dan’s previous guest post about the differences in writing for kids and adults:

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Writing-Related Job in NYC

A job posting that came through my inbox:

Teachers & Writers Collaborative is accepting applications for the full-time position of Education Director. The Education Director manages T&W’s creative writing programs for young people and adults in
schools and community sites. This position reports to the T&W Director.
More info:

--Establishes and maintains effective relationships with NYC Department of Education personnel and other key decision makers at the system-wide and individual school levels

--Identifies opportunities and implements strategies to promote T&W’s creative writing programs to schools and community organizations

--Sets up residencies with school and organizational administrators, including negotiating fees and other arrangements as needed

--Manages the selection, training, and oversight of writers on T&W’s roster of teaching artists

--Plans and leads professional development sessions for teaching artists

--Develops strategies for assessing workshops and residencies, including observing writers, delegating observation visits to other staff or interns, and giving feedback to writers

--Oversees development and production of materials used in promoting and implementing T&W workshops

--Ensures accuracy of residencies/workshop information on T&W website

--Works with the director of operations to establish standards and processes for publishing anthologies of work written during T&W programs

--Works with the director and director of operations to develop proposals for funding of T&W’s creative writing programs

--Represents T&W at arts-in-education and education community events

--BA plus 5-6 years of experience or MA plus 3-4 years of experience
--Experience in teaching, program development, and program assessment required; literary arts/writing background preferred
--Knowledge of education issues, particularly those affecting K-12 public schools in New York City
--Strong written and oral communication skills
--Ability to work effectively with diverse populations

Salary and Benefits:
Mid to high $50s
Health and dental insurance
Generous leave policy

To Apply:
Mail a cover letter and resume to: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 520 Eighth Ave., Ste. 2020, New York, NY 10018, or e-mail to info(at) (replace (at) with @ in sending e-mail). Applications will not be accepted via fax.

Applications for the T&W Education Director position must be received by 9:00 AM (Eastern), Monday, July 25, 2011.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Manuscript Critique by Richard Peabody

I assume that everyone knows DC’s literary godfather, Richard Peabody, writer/poet/editor/publisher/teacher. Whenever I meet a writer new to the area, I say, “Well, first, obviously, you have to meet Richard Peabody,” and often they already have. He is the glue that connects so many writers—and not just in DC, but across the world. Even before Facebook, he kept in touch with writers all over the place and, seemingly, never forgets anyone he’s come in contact with/taught/read/published/corresponded with/read with/etc. He’s generous and loyal and true and honest and smart.

All this to lead into something I recently learned: that he’s available for manuscript critique, and not just book ms., but individual pieces. Here’s the info from his website:

Manuscript Assessment/Literary Consultation

Contact Richard at

I charge $1 a page to read a manuscript sans red pen and simply tell you what I think. I send along a short 1-2pp critique and don't return the manuscript.

I charge $2 a page to read and critique manuscripts. Poetry/fiction/nf. Book length or individual stories, essays, poems. I red pen the document and send a much longer written critique.

All manuscripts are to be double spaced. Booklength manuscripts should be in Courier font (as that's what agents and editors expect).

Checks should accompany your manuscript.
Here’s the website:

Here’s an amazing Washington Post Magazine article about Richard:

Monday, June 13, 2011

Residency: The Journey Home

I stopped for a couple days in Durham, NC, to celebrate my sister’s recent MAJOR accomplishment, completing her dissertation in anthropology and graduating with her PhD. While there, I managed to cut a wide swath foodwise:

--a too-quick but wonderful visit with a friend who has the most amazing porch, where we enjoyed mojitos and a cilantro-cashew spread that made me beg for the recipe after one bite

--dinner at Toast, which features excellent sandwiches and soup. The cold sandwiches are served on white bread with the crusts cut off…so homey! I had a cured salmon sandwich with cold cucumber soup.

--a trip to the wonderful Durham farmer’s market, where I found my favorite whole grain mustard from Little Tree Farm

--lunch at Parker & Otis, a grilled pimento cheese/tomato sandwich and gazpacho (yes, it was very hot there, as evidenced by the preponderance of cold soups)

--a quick trip to the Taste of the Triangle, with food stands offering quick and yummy bites. I especially loved the shrimp and grits from East End Martini Bar and the iced coffee from Carrboro Coffee Roasters.

--I also found a great used book store, Wentworth & Leggett, where I found a nice hardcover edition of Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, to replace the ratty paperback on my Favorite Books Bookshelf. Oh, and 5 more books…once you say yes to one, might as well buy some more!

--The party for my sister was fabulous, despite the but-it-hasn’t-rained-for-two-weeks downpour. She outdid herself with an array of amazing, Asian-inspired salads. And lucky me, she gave me the cookbook that inspired her for my birthday: Cooking in the Moment by local, James Beard award-winning chef Andrea Reusing. Seriously, vegetables never tasted so good—and I chatted with some party guests who are farmers, learning what it really takes to get that wonderful, sustainably-farmed produce to the farmers’ market (don’t you people EVER complain that the price is higher than at the grocery store!). Oreo Freeze for dessert! (If you have the patience to deal with an annoying website, you can get some recipes from the book here, and see the gorgeousness of the photos: )

--A quick breakfast at Biscuitville before heading out, where I also bought some treats for my patient husband (who’s been surviving god knows how during my extended absence) and then the Kroger, for my favorite sausage, Neese’s, complete with a picture of a pig on the paper label. See for yourself:

--And back to Virginia, for an excellent welcome home martini.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Residency: Finale

I could not have had a better teaching experience than this past residency at Converse College. My favorite workshop is always the last day—not for the reasons you’re thinking!—but because on the last day everyone brings in their homework and exercises they’ve been working on and reads their favorite one out loud. The progress is remarkable and gratifying and obvious—which is pleasant for us poor old teachers, but, more importantly, important for the students who immediately SEE that they are becoming better writers. It’s a nice note to leave on.

Marlin “Bart” Barton, my co-teacher, is smart and amazing and filled with great stories. Go read his work; I love his collection of stories, The Dry Well, based on some of his old Alabama family stories. (  I can’t wait for his new novel, coming out soon!

It was wonderful to see our first class of graduates—congratulations! Our miracle worker of a program director Rick Mulkey concluded his ceremonial remarks by reading the wonderful poem “The Writer,” by Richard Wilbur, and so I wish what he wishes, only harder.

Read and/or listen to the poem here (it’s the perfect poem for writers):

And what a party! We danced to the fine stylings of The Wheresville Project, a Spartanburg band that I’m predicting will hit the big time sometime soon. Perhaps I’m personally partial to the bass player, Hunter Mulkey—son of the program director and his wife, my favorite shopping buddy who is also the co-founder of the program—but it’s remarkable to see four 15-year-old boys with so much panache and talent. (Seriously—a sax? And a harmonica?) Check them out for yourself:
Official page--

Finally, why not join us at our January residency? The application deadline for the January term is in October…just a thought! Read more:

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Residency: Wednesday

Fun fact of the day from one of my two fabulous thesis students, Lyn Riddle, who gave her craft lecture today on the sense of place in John Steinbeck's work:  Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath in 100 days.  Gasps and groans when she told us this.

I must confess to eating a patty melt at Papa's Breakfast Nook tonight at midnight.  And I must confess that it was awesome.  Furthermore, I must confess that scotch may have been involved earlier in the evening.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Residency: Tuesday

Albert Goldbarth.

Amazing poet and amazing man.  He's funny and smart and generous, though I'm not sure he'd want anyone to know that last part.  (I can spill the beans here because he doesn't go on the internet.  Really.  Not at all.  Never.)  He brings energy to our residency, and every conversation with him gives me a certain exhilerating thrill as I realize that here I am speaking with--and I truly mean this--a genuis.

I loved his seminar today in which he--beautifully, lyrically--told us to read in a passionate and open-minded way ("the sacred, the slutty, everything"; to read instructions that come with a cheap toy and Dante's Inferno, Vanity Fair the novel and the magazine).  He reminded us to honor greatness and feel humbled before it, giving us the image of Dickens writing Bleak House with a nib pen, dipping it into ink every two lines or so.  In stunning and dextrous language, he warned us that computers and the way we read today--on the screen--and the fall of the printed book will have ramifications for the human brain, which is slowly and irrevocably being rewired.  A line that I loved as he talked about books: "the essence of an elegy is also praise."

He wouldn't tell me where this beautiful essay was published, and called me "Google-fingers" when I threatened to look it up.

At lunch, he called me "shrewd," and I loved that he chose that word, and he loved that I loved that word.

You can read more about him at the Poetry Foundation site.
And here's a poem that appeared in The New Yorker, which I hear in his distinct voice.  If you ever get the chance to hear him read, GO. 

Residency: Monday

Lucky me!  I had a lovely breakfast (biscuits and gravy again!) with Chuck Adams, legendary editor who is now with Algonquin, and he gave me some advice about my Chicago novel.  I very much appreciated his honesty and his quick take on how to think about the storyline.  Then he offhandedly made one remark that was so astute and so absolutely BRILLIANTLY insightful and such an amazing suggestion that it almost took my breath away.  It was one of those suggestions that you know is exactly right the second you hear it--not that it's easy to implement, unfortunately!

Even luckier, I then saw him in action in a discussion about the publishing biz, in which he offered a great deal of thoughtful advice, reminding us how story and voice are really what we need to be thinking about as writers:  "I see a lot of good writing and see fewer really good stories."

It was a little daunting to hear that he gets 15-20 submissions a week from agents...and Algonquin publishes 20 books a year.  Yikes.  On the other hand, his obvious passion for editing and working with writers was a delight, and I can't imagine any author not feeling incredibly pleased to see their book land at Algonquin.

You can read more about Chuck Adams in this interview in Poets & Writers.
And he recommended that we read this interview with the also-legendary editor Robert Gottlieb in The Paris Review.

Monday, June 6, 2011

/One/: Interview with Jennifer Egan

Check out this wonderful online journal, co-edited by one of my former students from Johns Hopkins, Joshua Korenblat: /One/:  Here's an excerpt from his excellent interview with Jennifer Egan:

/One/: How much do you judge the first drafts of your work? I read that you handwrite your first drafts on yellow legal pads. Do you do that as a way to keep yourself in a creative flow, in a way that you can’t find on screen?

JE: Yes, that’s exactly why. I don’t want to think and judge. I just try to let something happen. I’m waiting for my unconscious mind to kick-in. Once I have the interesting material, I use my conscious mind to shape it, and try to understand it and make it fulfill whatever vision it seems it could be manifesting. But I can’t come up with the material consciously.

/One/: You like to generate potentially too much material?

JE: I don’t know if it’s too much—it’s often wrong. Much of it is no good; I’m just looking for the part that is good. It doesn’t matter what proportion of it is good, as long as there’s something that’s interesting. The first draft of The Keep was really, really terrible. Not much was good in there. But there were a couple of insights that proved really useful. The critical insight turned out to be that the story was being written by a prisoner in a prison writing class. I never would have discovered that if I hadn’t just written it and seen it on the page. It’s unfortunate that I had to spew out so much dreck to see that, but the insight ended up being very useful to me.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Residency: Sunday

Some exciting developments here at the Converse College low-res MFA residency:

--I got carded at a bar last night.  Even if it's a pity carding, or an enforced carding, I will take it!  Bless you, Delaney's!  I forgive you for leaving me smelling like an ashtray.

--I learned about cornbread salad, which showed up at lunch, and is a marvelous melding of sour cream, shredded cheese, cornbread crumbs, tomatoes, pinto beans, green onions, and BACON.  Seconds, yes, and right now I'm wishing I had thirds.

--My craft lecture this morning on what makes an effective beginning went well, especially considering that it was Sunday morning, following a Saturday night that went rather late (see above).  So far, I believe I've managed to mention The Great Gatsby at least once a day.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Residency: Friday

I did my reading tonight--from a work in progress--and there were two immediate benefits:
1. I got to wear my fabulous skirt that I bought for the story-telling event; and
2. I offered two title suggestions, and I was promptly and convincingly told which title I should use.
A very good night.

Earlier in the day, I was delighted to have the chance to hear the amazing Dan Wakefield talk about Kurt Vonnegut.  (Dan is the editor of the forthcoming volume of Vonngut's letters.)

Again, fortunately, you don't have to rely on my scribbled notes, as Dan helpfully provided a great handout titled "Kurt Vonnegut's 8 Rules of Writing."  I can't reproduce the entire document, but here are two of my favorites:

"3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

"7. Write to please just one person.  If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia."

Dan also read some relevant sections of Vonnegut's interview with The Paris Review:

....All the great story lines are great practical jokes that people fall for over and over again.

Can you give an example?

The Gothic novel. Dozens of the things are published every year, and they all sell. My friend Borden Deal recently wrote a Gothic novel for the fun of it, and I asked him what the plot was, and he said, “A young woman takes a job in an old house and gets the pants scared off her.”

Some more examples?

The others aren’t that much fun to describe: somebody gets into trouble, and then gets out again; somebody loses something and gets it back; somebody is wronged and gets revenge; Cinderella; somebody hits the skids and just goes down, down, down; people fall in love with each other, and a lot of other people get in the way; a virtuous person is falsely accused of sin; a sinful person is believed to be virtuous; a person faces a challenge bravely, and succeeds or fails; a person lies, a person steals, a person kills, a person commits fornication.

If you will pardon my saying so, these are very old-fashioned plots.

I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger. Now, there’s an admirable practical joke for you. When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are—

And what they want.

Yes. And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other. Students like to say that they stage no confrontations because people avoid confrontations in modern life. “Modern life is so lonely,” they say. This is laziness. It’s the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can’t or won’t do that, he should withdraw from the trade.

You can read the whole thing here-- is great, but not quite the same without Dan Wakefield's gravelly voice and personal stories.  How lucky I am to be here!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Residency: Thursday

Maybe if I use the day of the week as a title, I'll actually be able to keep track of what day it is (yes, already, confusion has set in as the real world has dissolved).

Just a quick post in the gap before lunch (more pickles?) and after a great craft lecture by our special guest, novelist Brock Clarke, who spoke lovingly of John Cheever and the story "The Cure," in particular.  I took a few notes, but mostly I sat entranced, as I, too, love Cheever (and will be talking about "The Reunion" in workshop today) and could listen all day long to someone smart discuss Cheever stories.

But my lack of note-taking doesn't matter, as Brock's great piece was published on The Rumpus, so you can (and should) look it up immediately:

Here's a little tease:  "Cheever does matter: he’s one of the greatest twentieth century American fiction writers, and one of the three (along with Flannery O’Connor and Donald Barthelme) most important American short story writers of the same period. This is a fact. It’s a fact because I say it’s a fact, and so you should accept it as such...."

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Promising Beginning... the Converse College Low-Residency MFA session, which officially starts this evening.  At lunch today, we had a sandwich bar with an array of condiments, including some pickles that looked better than the run-of-the-mill pickle.  "Try me," said a tiny voice...and so I put a couple on my turkey sandwich. They were amazing--pickly and sweet, some of the best southern-style pickles I've ever had.  I went back for seconds.

I also met the chef, and was able to express my pickle enthusiasm to him and to the food service director.  Hopefully, those pickles will show up again!

And how nice that the food service director remembered me--yes, it helps to blog favorably about the college cafeteria, as I did a couple years ago while I was writer-in-residence:

"Writing Your Life as Memoir, Feature Film, or Television"

An intriguing class co-taught by Khris Baxter, who is a great speaker/teacher:

Writing Your Life as Memoir, Feature Film, or Television

Is your life the stuff of books or movies or a great TV series? Are you looking to make the jump into memoir writing? Once your manuscript gets printed and your book hits the shelves, then what? How do you solicit interest and excitement from Hollywood? Can you actually make the jump into feature film or television writing?

Learn how to turn your story into a book, scripted show, or feature film. Screenwriter Khris Baxter and author Edward Ugel offer a one day workshop that brings you into the world of book publishing, studio pitches, and network TV. Whether you're a beginning creative writer or an advanced professional, this workshop will provide you with the tools and strategies to bring your life's story to readers and viewers all over the world.

Edward Ugel is the author of two critically acclaimed memoirs – Money for Nothing ('07) and I’m with Fatty ('10). Money for Nothing was optioned to Warner Brothers by producers Mike DeLuca and Tobey Maguire. The screenplay was written by Peter Steinfeld. Ed and Peter are co-writing the screenplay for I'm with Fatty. Ed is represented by Creative Artists Agency and The Waxman Literary Agency.

Khris Baxter is a screenwriter, producer and story consultant and the founder of Story Lab Partners. His body of work includes numerous optioned screenplays and one produced film. Khris teaches screenwriting at the low residency MFA in Creative Writing at Queens University in Charlotte, NC, and at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD. He also conducts private screenwriting workshops throughout the Washington, D.C. Metro area. Khris is a member of the Virginia Film Office and a judge for the annual Virginia Screenwriting Competition.

Fee: $150

Workshop will be held in Georgetown at Hickok Cole Architects
1023 31st ST NW, Washington, DC (between M & K)
Saturday, 6/4/2011 from 10am – 4pm



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