Thursday, July 28, 2011

Work in Progress: Three Writing Exercises I Like

I like writing exercises, both in a class and at home in my own work. There’s something about being forced away from your usual patterns that can produce some surprising and excellent results. Of course, not always: and I remind people that it’s just an exercise…just messing around, just having fun. If it doesn’t work, toss it out. But that combination of feeling relaxed while feeling under pressure in a class with a teacher saying, “Start now,” is pretty potent.

Here are three exercises that I especially like:

1. Describe a lake as seen by a man (or woman) who has just commited murder. Do not mention the murder.
(This is a classic, from John Gardner’s wonderful craft book, The Art of Fiction.)

2. Choose a character you’re working with and come up with a list of props this character might have, things they might carry and/or use (i.e. cane with a carved parrot head handle). Then add one item that doesn’t quite fit. Write about how and why this odd item has entered their life.
(This is adapted from Naming the World, edited by Bret Anthony Johnston, a book that’s a treasure trove of writing exercises.)

3. Write about the worst thing you ever did.
(This is from an exercise that legendary writing teacher Gordon Lish used to give his students; Amy Hempel’s story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” was written from this exercise. Read the story here: .)

Care to share one of your own favorites? Send it to me, and I’ll share it on the blog:

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Sun: Retreat in October; Scholarship Deadline in August

The Sun is one of my favorite magazines, so I’m delighted to recommend its wonderful, personal writing retreats. The next one is set for October, in beautiful Big Sur, California—!!—and there are two scholarships available for those in financial need. (Application deadline is 8/15, so don’t dilly-dally.)

This isn’t one of those networking-type events (not that there’s anything wrong with that)—instead, the editors and writers at The Sun choose to focus on personal writing and going deep into the self. You can read more about my experience at one of The Sun’s previous retreats here. Also, if you’re interested, you can read one of my stories that appeared in The Sun.
And here are more details about the conference and the application procedure for the scholarships:

A Weekend with The Sun in California
Into the Fire: The Sun Celebrates Personal Writing
Esalen Institute, Big Sur, California
October 21–23, 2011

Join Sun authors, readers, and staff, along with editor and publisher Sy Safransky, for a lively weekend of writing, reflection, and inspiration. Our fall gathering will be held at Esalen, a retreat center situated on twenty-seven acres of spectacular Big Sur coastline.

Two full scholarships are available for aspiring or established writers who can make a strong case that they would benefit from this retreat but are unable to afford it. Scholarships cover lodging, meals, and tuition for the weekend. Scholarship-application forms are available here:

To apply please e-mail your completed form, along with your CV and a statement of intent, to

If you prefer you may mail your application materials to:

The Sun
Attn: Esalen Scholarships
107 North Roberson Street
Chapel Hill, NC 27516

Application materials must be received by August 15, 2011. We will notify applicants of our decision by September 1.

A large enrollment is expected, and spaces are limited. We recommend registering soon by contacting Esalen at (831) 667-3005, or registering online. We hope you'll join us.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

First Manassas

Part of our weekend plans included a trip to watch the reenactment of the Battle of First Manassas, as part of the Civil War’s Sesquicentennial (such a fun word to say and such a hard word to spell). Yes, it was HOT—100 plus degrees—and yes, it was crowded: the battle reenactment involved roughly 8500 reenactors dressed in full Civil War garb and roughly 10,000 spectators. Yes, there were a lot of lines and a lot of waiting around. Yes, four dollars for an iced tea was expensive.


Though the town of Manassas is about sixty minutes from where we live (with traffic), and is considered part of the DC metro area, to be immersed in the Civil War milieu felt like being plunked into a different world. This was essentially the first major battle of the war; both sides—generals, soldiers, politicians, citizens—were certain they were going to win quickly and be done with it. People from Washington drove out in carriages to watch. But this was the battle that sobered everyone up, giving a glimpse of what lay ahead: thousands wounded and dead, nothing easy about any of it.

After we watched the two hour reenactment—Regimental flags! Cannons! Horses! Musket fire! Men marching around in organized chaos!—we went over to the actual grounds of the battlefield, a park run by the National Park Service. While having the images of the reenactment in my head were helpful as I tried to imagine what happened on this terrible day150 years ago, what always moves me the most about any Civil War battlefield that I’ve visited is the simple beauty of the rolling hills, the fringe of trees, the expanse of grass, the drone of the cicadas, the hawks circling above, a vibrant yellow butterfly. The scene is so peaceful; those fields always seem so peaceful. How could anything terrible happen here?

You can learn more about the battles (there was another, even bloodier, battle on the same site a year later) here:

Monday, July 25, 2011

WNBA Networking Event Set for August 4; All Are Welcome

Women's National Book Association (WNBA)--one of my favorite DC-area networking groups is holding a great introductory event, something sure to liven your dog days of August.  All are welcome!
August Downtown Diners

This will be a special Downtown Diner Dinner aimed at celebrating what a great organization WNBA is. (The cost will be the same as always--each of us pays for our own meal plus tax and tip.)

As you know, the WNBA is a wonderful place to be in good times and bad because we network, support each other, and even give each other job tips when we know about them. Come out and learn more about  about WNBA while enjoying a meal with friends, old and new!

When: Thursday, August 4, 2011, 6:30 p.m.
Where: America Restaurant, Union Station
RSVP: by July 30 to Carla Danziger so we can make reservations.
Cost: Whatever you order at the restaurant + tax + tip.
And don't forget to bring a friend!
For more info about WNBA:

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Work in Progress: Why You Should Watch the Tour de France If You Like Big, Meaty Novels

No, I don’t even own a bicycle. But, yes, I love the Tour de France—professional cycling’s grand and historic month-long ride across France. The race is winding up on Sunday, and I’ll be bereft without any more mornings balanced between getting work done and running in to the room with the TV in time for the sprint finish. I could go on—endlessly—but for now, I’ll offer a few thoughts on why following the Tour is like reading a great novel:

1. Great setting. The scenery—the countryside of France, vast mountains in France, Spain, Italy, charming villages, oddball lunatic fans, abandoned castles, farm fields. No sport is as picturesque.

2. Great narrative voice. Paul Sherwin and Phil Liggett are the Voices of the Tour on the Versus Network, offering excellent, smart, passionate commentary in fabulous British accents. They’ve got great chemistry together, and it’s literally impossible to imagine one existing without the other. I have a massive crush on their voices (and if you watch the Tour, you’ll see that I carefully chose the word “massive” as it’s one of Paul’s favorites).

3. What do the characters want? It’s clear: they want to get to Paris. They want to survive 3430.5 kilometers and 21 days of racing.

4. Lots of subplots. 198 riders started this year (in 22 teams), and not every rider is in a position to win the entire race; in fact, probably only about thirty (if that) start with a semi-legitimate shot at getting on the podium (top three). So there are various ways to succeed: You can win the stage on a given day. The overall race leader wears the yellow jersey, but there are other jersey competitions: the green jersey for best sprinter, the polka dot jersey for King of the Mountains (best climber), the white jersey for best young rider. There’s the best team. There’s the daily most aggressive rider. All these competitions shift and change throughout, with many not decided until the last days of the Tour.

5. Flat and round characters. Heroes, villains. The team leader and the guy whose role is a domestique, fetching water from the team car to bring to the rest of the team. The glamorous sprinter and the lead-out guy who helps position the sprinter. The guy who’s good at the time trial and the guy who takes the heat and sets the pace on the mountain to grind down the other teams. And, alas, the dopers who break your heart. You can cheer for a man, a team, or a country.

6. Surprising yet inevitable endings. You can be a favorite, assumed by all that you’ll end up in the Top 10 in Paris, and then you crash in the rain and break your collarbone and you’re out of the race. Anything can happen at any moment. A breakaway usually gets caught by the group by the end…except when every now and then it doesn’t.

7. Conflict. There cannot be a more punishing sport. There cannot be more intense, tougher athletes than professional cyclists. Even though I’m always telling students to be “mean to your characters,” I might suggest that these “characters” are being treated too meanly: finishing out a ride with a concussion? Falling headfirst into a fence of barbed wire and finishing the day with blood pouring down your legs? These guys are usually in the 5’11”/145 pounds range…they look misleadingly fragile, and they’re anything but. Yet, in the midst of all this conflict and pressure, there’s a beautiful sense of tradition and etiquette infusing the race.

8. Use of language. Such beautiful, specialized word: peleton. Breakaway. Domestique. Chase group. Attack. Catch. Col. Maillot jaune. Hors catergorie. And the team names…Astana, SaxoBank, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Team Sky. And the lovely names of the cyclists: Thor Hushovd. Ivan Basso. Cadel Evans.

9. Climax & falling action. The race alternates between “easy” flat stages and grueling mountain stages, a classic Fichtean curve of a plot with the climax building to, well, right now: two unbelievable mountain stages followed by the individual time trial (the cyclist against the clock, alone), and then the Tour is won…and there’s the falling off action of the ride into Paris. Yes, there’s excitement at the end—who will win the stage in Paris?—but the last day is essentially a day to relax and enjoy, to, as they say, “live happily ever after.” (If you’ve survived, that is.

Have I piqued your interest? You can learn more about the Tour with this excellent beginner’s guide:  Or, it’s very easy to pick up on your own: tune in on the Versus Network. Allez, allez!

Must go…will Andy Schleck’s bold and early attack hold up? Contador is heating up....

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

To Google+ Or Not to Google+? That Is the Question

Social media: can’t live without it, can’t get anything done with it. Anyway, I ventured into Google+ last night, and I’m still getting organized, but feel free to circle me—I see we need a new verb here—or tell me you want to be circled and invited. I don’t think I like it as much as Facebook, but then I’ve always been incredibly resistant to change (I was born an old crank).

What I realize I do like about Facebook is the odd, swarming mess of it—that people are posting about their lunch next to people who are bemoaning the bankruptcy of Borders bookstores next to someone talking about losing power during a thunderstorm in Chicago next to someone advocating a new book by a Polish-American author. That there’s a tiny group of people who respond to something I write about hockey and there’s a different tiny group of people who respond when I write about Iowa City. The mess isn’t as messy as it might seem, since anyone I friend needs some sort of connection to one of my interests (i.e. it’s doubtful that I’ll learn much about cage-fighting through my Facebook friends).

But Google+ seems to me (so far) just a little too organized and sanitized, cordoning everyone off into their relevant “circles.” Is this a "friend" or a "writer friend"?  A "student" or a "writer friend"?  Too much thinking, evaluating, and ranking. And maybe it’s true that no one will ever know which “circle” you’ve lumped them in, but just from the limited time I was on the site, I noticed that you do see that some posts are “public” and others are for “limited circles” (or some such phrase) so if you’re not getting any “limited circle” info from your so-called friend, you’re going to know you’ve been dumped into the outer rings.

Anyway, I was late to Facebook, I’m still not on Twitter, and I vowed I would move early into the next new New Thing. So…circle me. And if you’d like a friendly guide to the whole thing and why a writer might jump into this new way of wasting time—I mean, new way of promoting and connecting, I thought writer Paula Whyman’s introduction was very helpful and, as always when she puts fingers to keyboard, amusing:

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Link Corral: Experts Agree--Based on My FB Status Updates, I'm "Neurotic"

Want a free issue of Ploughshares? From their e-letter:

"Every Wednesday on the blog, we'll be featuring a back issue to give away. So far, we've given away issues edited by Lorrie Moore, Tim O'Brien & Mark Strand, and Sherman Alexie, and there's plenty more to come. Let us know how you feel about the work of this guest editor and we'll mail out an issue to a passionate reader. Here's how it works:"


C.M. Mayo’s Madam Mayo blog has a nice piece about the writing technique of language overlay:

“What is in your character's world that he or she would feel passionate about? There's not a linear formula to follow; just take a piece of paper and jot down any nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, phrases, concepts-- in short, whatever pops into your mind that might do.”

The idea is then to incorporate these words and infuse this way of thinking directly into the character.

Read more:


Here’s an interesting (scary?) article from the Washington Post about how employers are analyzing Facebook status updates to determine personalities. Apparently, the FB analysis correlates to the results of standard personality tests.

“People who tested as extroverts on the personality test tended to have more Facebook friends, but their networks were more sparse than those of neurotics, meaning that their friends were less likely to know one another than were the friends of other Facebook users. People who tested as neurotic had more “dense” networks of people who know one another and share similar interests.”

This may be my favorite part:

“The researchers also found that people with long last names tended to be have more neurotic traits, perhaps because “a lifetime of having one’s long last name misspelled may lead to a person expressing more anxiety and quickness to anger,” according to the study. People who tested high on the neurotic scale also tended to use a lot of anxiety-associated words, such as “worried,” “fearful” and “nervous,” on their Facebook posts.

They also use words describing ingestion: “pizza,” “dish, “eat.”

Golbeck says she can’t explain that last correlation. “You’d have to get a psychologist or psychiatrist on that one,” she said. “It could be that people that are neurotic talk more about what they are eating. It could be a deep correlation that we can’t understand on the surface.”

I feel like I’ve just spent an hour with Dr. Freud! Read more:

And note to self: Double-check those privacy settings!


Finally, don’t forget Sandra Beasley’s reading on Saturday at Politics & Prose. She’ll be reading from her new memoir, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life. Details here:

Monday, July 18, 2011

City of Big Shoulders and Big Appetites

Steve and I went to Chicago for a long weekend to celebrate our wedding anniversary, and we came home exhausted and needing a vacation, so that must mean it was a successful trip. Here are some highlights:

We arrived on Thursday afternoon and got into our hotel right away, a lovely room on the 29th floor, overlooking Lake Michigan and Navy Pier. How fortunate that there was a full moon (or full enough moon) this weekend so we got to see that magical, true Chicago sight, the huge moon rising out of the lake.

We walked down to the Loop to the Berghoff for a “light” lunch of German food and excellent beer. On the walk back, we managed to find our favorite Garrett’s Popcorn by smelling it from several blocks away—“are you sure that’s not a pretzel place?”; “no, that’s caramel corn!”—and bought a bag of Chicago Mix, caramel corn and cheese corn mixed together. I don’t know why that combo works as well as it does, but it definitely does. (Later, we heard from a Chicagoan that the way to go is to add plain popcorn in there, too.) Then we stopped at Fannie May candies for a box of Pixies and a box of the special Leslie Pietrzyk Mix of 90% caramels, 5% English toffee, 5% peanut butter buttons for Steve.

We headed out to dinner with friends and then to hear some blues at Kingston Mines. I loved the set-up: two rooms, two bands. One band plays an hour—no break—and then the band in the other room plays an hour—no break—for non-stop music and an excuse to stand up and wander around to the other room. I was pleased to drink a Chicago classic beer, Old Style, that came in the CUTEST little bottle that looked like a wooden bat (go, Cubbies!). Here’s a picture and more info:

Both bands were excellent, though the CD I bought was from the Joanna Connor Band, since it’s (sadly) rare to find a woman bluesman. (More about her here: )A fun, late, late night….

….so not an early morning the next day. We walked south along the lake until we needed a bathroom and so ventured into the giant, chaotic pavilion at Navy Pier. How many children can scream at once…a lot! Anyway, where there are screaming children, there’s always a bathroom, so mission accomplished, and we cut over to Michigan Avenue took a look at the newly unveiled giant statue of Marilyn Monroe in the “Seven-Year Itch” subway grate/dress fluttering scene, which is called a work of public art, but which really seems to be a photo op for men to pose while staring up at her crotch. Why Marilyn Monroe in Chicago? No one seems to know. There was a crowd, but I don’t think they were admiring the art of it all. Anyway, here’s a picture and you can judge for yourself:

Walk, walk, walk, shop, shop, shop. It’s such a beautiful city, especially in the summer. Flowers everywhere, that blue sky! We took a break for a Bloody Mary at the elegant bar at the Ralph Lauren store and then had some Chicago hot dogs since our dinner reservation for our anniversary wasn’t until 9PM.

We went to TRU, a plush, contemporary restaurant with a modern French-ish menu and a great art collection. Such a fantastic space and design…when I came back from the ladies’ room, I told Steve he had to go to the men’s so he could see the angled glass sink, and when Steve expressed doubt, the maitre d’ agreed with me that the sink was worth seeing. The food was very nice, but what really made this place stand out was the design—no crammed tables!—the superb service, and the thoughtful wine pairings. At one point, two waiters appeared and in perfect synchronization, they swooped away our plates, the butter dishes, and two spoons. Now, that’s art! And the wines by the glass were very nice to drink while waiting for the food, but when paired with the food, they became transcendent. I know, I know—that’s what it’s supposed to be like…and this really was that way. All this without an ounce of stuffiness, too. It was the perfect special occasion restaurant.

Saturday: Play ball! Off to Wrigley Field, with amazing tickets five rows behind the Cubs dugout. If you’re even a half-hearted baseball fan, there’s no way Wrigley Field won’t stir your soul. Yes, the concourse is dingy inside and crowded and dark—and yes, the Cubs lost this game to the Marlins 13-3—but being at this storied ballpark, with the ivy and the organ and the scoreboard and the pennant flags flapping—is about as close as it gets to feeling that you’re watching baseball in the glory days of the 1950s. I just love it there. When there’s not a giant screen of endless replays and quizzes and tarted-up 20-year-old girls throwing cheap T-shirts into the stands every two seconds, you can really relax and enjoy the game; you realize that those components actually detract more than enhance.

After the game, we stopped off for margaritas and guacamole at El Jardin, a friendly, family-run Mexican restaurant in the neighborhood.

And then for dinner: Lou Malnati’s pizza, our favorite. When we got to the River North location, there seemed to be about 100 people milling around outside, waiting for at table, and even the cab driver laughed at us. But the still-smiling hostess claimed it would be “only 45 minutes to an hour” and somehow that seemed reasonable. Anyway, 50 minutes later, we sat down and yes, this pizza is art. We got the sausage pizza, ate too much, waddled home through the velvet rope lines at the fancy clubs, then ate the remaining two pieces for breakfast the next day before heading off to the airport. Here’s the link to Lou Malnati’s:  …and note that you can have this pizza mail-ordered anywhere, in case you happen to need a little bit of Chicago in your life.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Work in Progress: The Beginning of a Surprising Summer

I’ve quoted one of my favorite writing teachers, Richard Bausch, about a zillion times a zillion different ways (and students think I’m smart…nope, just smart enough to steal from the best).

By far my favorite quote of his is, “Write until something surprises you.” That’s when you know it’s good: you’re surprised, and undoubtedly the reader will be surprised too. That doesn’t mean go around searching for wacky, oddball surprises like anvils dropping out of the sky…but write honestly and openly and, yes, something WILL surprise you.

I think about this quote often, but I’m especially thinking of it now because I recently bought a tent.

I can hear it now: I didn’t know you camped! That seems so…not something you’d ever do. Bugs? Creepy (or absent) bathrooms? Exposure to weather? Freeze-dried food packets? No showers? Correct--none of those things is for me. I do not camp.

And yet I bought this little two-person tent because—and this is the literal truth—I was watching TV and saw several times a commercial for Target where kids start playing with summer toys and beach stuff in the Target aisles and some attractive hipsters pop open a tent. This is exactly when I decided to buy a tent (yes, at Target), and on Monday, I found exactly the tent I needed.

What a surprise! Having this tent makes me so happy for the following reasons:

1. I feel ready for the apocalypse, especially since I bought a tarp to go underneath the tent to keep dry(ish) and a cute little battery powered lantern.

2. I think it will be fun to sleep out in the backyard this summer. Or it will be fun to try to sleep.

3. I surprised myself.

Surprises are fun, and why wait for someone to surprise you? I’m going to try to do something surprising once a week for the rest of the summer, though I’m already desperately fighting away my urge to plan out all these forthcoming surprises. We’ll see…in the meantime, let me know if you’d like a spot around my metaphorical backyard campfire.

Pertinent link:
Here’s the infamous Target ad:
(If the tent doesn’t work for me, I suspect the Slip-n-Slide is next)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Registration Open for the year-Long, Write Your Book Workshop

Area writers: Here’s a good opportunity for a class focused on the long form (novel or memoir) taught by a great teacher, Hildie Block, who sent me the following write-up. She also mentioned to me that the last time she offered the class, it sold out in twenty-four hours, so act accordingly!

Are you working on a novel or memoir but could use some feedback or support? The Year-Long, Write Your Book workshop could be the help you need.

This unique workshop meets about 28 times over a year to support participants as they craft their novel or memoir. Classes meet Monday evenings in Falls Church from 7:30-10pm. There is ample parking and public transit access (bus right in front to metro less than a mile away).

I love leading this workshop! It's so exciting to watch every year, as people realize their dreams of completing their books! I'm grateful each year that I can travel this journey with writers and watch them develop.

What is it? This is a "writing workshop" for folks who are crafting a novel (or memoir). It meets for about 8 weeks, once a week, and then takes about a month off, then reconvenes. In total we meet 28-30 times.

What happens? Each class starts with a prompt to get you thinking about the future of your book, or to think about it in a new way. Then the workshop leader will lead a lecture or discussion on a topic related to structure or deepening of your book. Then we have a break, and after that, spend 30-45 minutes discussing each "chunk" that we have for that session.

What the heck is a CHUNK? A chunk is a piece of someone's book, typically 30 pages. We receive it a week ahead of class, read it, make comments, and then have 30+ minutes to talk about what works, what doesn't, what's confusing and what's absolutely MARVELOUS.

Do I have to have my book written already? Nope. You should expect to turn in 1 or 2 CHUNKS in the first 8 weeks though, so you should be in the process of writing it.

How many people are in the workshop? About 8.

How long have you been doing this? I taught writing at AU and GW from 1996-2004; since 2004, I've been leading solely non-credit creative writing workshops. This will be the 6th year I've done "Write Your Book."

Where do you meet? In Falls Church City.

How do I sign up or get more information? Drop me an email (below) and I'll be happy to answer any questions you might have.

How much does it cost? $100 will hold your seat. The balance $800 is due before the first night of class. I can take check or credit cards or PayPal.

Contact info:
Hildie Block
Want my advice on writing?
For writing prompts follow me on Twitter: hildiesblock

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Good Housekeeping Contest Follow-Up: Winning Story & Salinger in GH

After yesterday’s write-up about the 2011 Good Housekeeping fiction contest, the literary editor of the magazine kindly pointed me to the link for the story that won the last contest: “Layers of Love” by Lori Rader Day.

It’s a beautiful story about the complications of family ties, with some great writing (and a lot of food!). Here’s a character description I admired for how revealing it is of Shana, but especially of the narrator, Jolie:

“I haven't decided whether or not I like Shana. She's unabashed that she's sleeping with Jeremy, as though sex is something she invented. She seems to think that she's somehow closer to the core of the family because she's dating the older brother. Or maybe it's because she lives out in the hills with them, went to the same high school a few years behind Sam. Fitting into the family on the basis of her résumé, rather than having to wed in, like me. I guess I've decided: I don't like her.”

As you know, before submitting anywhere, the smart writer reads the journal or the previous award winners to get a sense of the style and tone that the editors respond to. So no excuses for a blog reader not to win this contest!

And just for fun, the first time I posted about the Good Housekeeping contest, there was a reference to J.D. Salinger having published work in the magazine: “A Girl I Knew” in the February 1948 issue. Here’s the link to that story (probably illegally posted…read fast before the lawyers for the Estate of J.D. Salinger swoop down):

Monday, July 11, 2011

Good Housekeeping Fiction Contest Offers $3K for Top Story

Since—oddly—the “Good Housekeeping Fiction Contest” are keywords that often get people to this site, I’ll post the rules and info for the 2011 contest. Maybe I’ll get a star in heaven for this good deed.

Anyway, the contest is nothing to sneeze at: $3000 for first place and no entry fee. Here are the basics, but there’s a lot of fine print you should read at the website (link below):

How to Enter: Beginning July 1, 2011 at 12:01 AM (ET) through September 1, 2011 at 11:59 PM (ET) go to and submit your entry pursuant to the onscreen instructions. Applicants must submit an original short story, 3,500 words or less, on a theme that reflects an aspect of women’s lives today. Winner Selection: One (1) grand-prize winner and two (2) runners-up will be chosen at the sole discretion of Good Housekeeping’s judges’ panel.

Prizes and Approximate Retail Values: One (1) Grand-prize winner will receive $3,000 and possible publication in the May 2012 issue of Good Housekeeping. Two (2) runners-up will each receive $750 and possible publication on

Read more: Fiction Contest - Short Story Contest - Good Housekeeping

Also, I have to say that this recipe for Lasagna Toasts sounded fun for a quick, simple summer lunch:

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Work in Progress: Classics Are Classic

Last summer, I gave myself the big reading project of reading Moby-Dick for the first time, and the book shaped my summer. I loved the expansive sweep of it; I loved the sense that the book (and that world) it was always there that summer, whenever I had the chance to turn to it. I remember waking up at four in the morning and instead of worrying about going back to sleep, I’d simply get up and read about whales. It was the kind of book that you feel inhabited by.

In a less of a project but more of a whim, I recently picked up The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, which I had read in college. I remember feeling a certain sense of sloggishness about the reading experience, but also that things added up in a very remarkable, worthwhile way, and when I recently discovered my notebook of “important quotations” that I’d kept in college, there were several from The Portrait of a Lady.

I’m only about a third of the way through—so DON’T GIVE ANYTHING AWAY!—but I’m having the same sensation of feeling inhabited by the book. It’s a story about a girl growing up, but it’s about culture and class and freedom and gender and so on. The prose style isn’t as scary as one might believe, given the reputation James has for being dense. Lots of snappy dialogue helps! The characters are so well-drawn, with such pleasing complexity. I worry about Isabel—she’s about to head off to Florence, and I’m pretty sure she’ll get into some trouble there. (Of course, I would have married the fun, rich lord immediately, which would have made for a much shorter book.)

I guess I’m babbling away as a reminder that in our hurry-up lifestyle that values the new, it’s pleasant to be reminded of the pleasures of the old. I can’t think of a single classic book that I have either approached or revisited in recent years and not felt rewarded.

My off-the-cuff list of recommendations, if you’re looking for a meaty classic that will take over and change your life:

Anna Karenina
Sister Carrie
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
(I assume it’s understood that The Great Gatsby is a great classic that obviously--!!—will change your life, just that it’s not long and sweeping in terms of page-length. Plus, I assume it’s understood that anyone reading this blog already knows they have to read Gatsby if they haven’t.)

In the end, Faulkner (maybe next summer!) had it right, that it’s “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”

Back then, now, and always.

(Read the rest of Faulkner’s Nobel speech here: )

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Fun Facebook Factoids AND a Call for Flash Fiction

Hey social media mavens—here are some interesting findings for tweeters (twits? haha—how tired is that joke?) and posters, courtesy The Publicity Hound (see below for more info about The Publicity Hound’s free e-letter):

The Best Times to Tweet

The best time to tweet is around noon and 5 p.m. EST.

The best days to tweet are midweek or on the weekends.

The best time to post on Facebook is noon and 7 p.m. EST.

Sharing one post every two days will garner the most likes on Facebook.

The Eastern and Central time zones represent almost 80 percent of the U.S. population, so keep that in mind when timing your posts on the social media sites. If you live on the West Coast, either get up earlier, or use a program like HootSuite or Tweetdeck to schedule your tweets to go out early the following day.

Those are five interesting statistics in a clever infographic from KISSmetrics, using data from social media expert Dan Zarrella. Ragan's PR Daily offers the entire infographic here:

Reprinted from "The Publicity Hound's Tips of the Week," an ezine featuring tips, tricks and tools for generating free publicity. Subscribe at  and receive by email the handy cheat sheet "89 Reasons to Send a Press Release."


Speaking of Facebook, I recently “met” Chris Tusa on Facebook who told me that he’s the co-editor of a new online journal dedicated to flash fiction: Fiction Southeast, which is actively seeking submissions:

Fiction Southeast is published two times a year (in the fall and spring). The submission deadline for the fall issue is August 1st. The submission deadline for the spring issue is January 1st. Fiction Southeast is interested in flash fiction (fiction no longer than 1000 words), particularly work from upcoming writers born and raised in the south. All submissions should be sent to”

[Note to non-southerners: there’s also an editorial page that adds, “While we are interested in fiction that depicts a variety of southern traditions, beliefs, and landscapes, we DO NOT wish to limit the journal to only southern writers. Writers from other parts of the country should feel free to submit their work.”]

More details on how to submit and additional information about the journal can be found here:

You can subscribe to the journal (free) here:

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

My Story in Camera Obscura

I’m so proud to report that I have a story in the new edition of Camera Obscura, which is a stunningly beautiful independent journal that features prose and photography. That's Volume 3, summer-fall 2011, for the librarians out there.

Really, I haven’t seen a lovelier journal in quite a while: lush paper stock, thoughtful and varied photographs, classy font, and clean design. (Can I brag and say that it was listed in Library Journal’s Best Magazines of 2010?)

The story of mine that’s in here is quite a departure for me, an impressionistic piece that I wrote thanks to my “famous” collage exercise (read my previous post about collage here). Plus it’s about a ghost!  (Watch out, Twilight...vampires are so over!)

I haven’t yet had a chance to read the other pieces, but the titles are evocative: “It Goes Without Saying,” “The Nameless Saint,” “Faith and Burning,” “Exactly What to Say,” “A Long and Distinguished Career,” and “The Landfill.” (My piece is called “Ghost, 1899.”)

I’m sorry that you can’t read my story online—but this is a journal worth seeking out and paying $$ for. I’m so delighted my odd little piece found such an impressive home.

Pertinent links:
More info about the journal:
Submit your work:
 (There’s a prize of $1000 for the best piece published in each issue!)
Where to buy a copy:


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