Saturday, December 31, 2011

Converse Residency: Day 1

Well…I accessed the internet here  at the Convers low-res  MFA residency in the mountains of North Carolina, but sloooow, so I’ll be brief.  We started our first full day in fine style, with a craft lecture by my fiction colleague, Marlin Barton, about rejection and criticism.  Ahhh…the writing life!

Yet amidst the despair, there was hope, as Bart reminded us that the reason rejection and criticism hurt so much on a bad day is that we believe our worst and most secret fears are confirmed:  we’re  not talented enough, we’re frauds, everyone can see it. 

BUT—those feelings—as difficult as they may be—are also good because they force us to keep pushing against the limits of our talents, and that’s what being an artist is all about.

With that in mind, it’s off to workshop!

(Eggs Benedict for breakfast—yum!  And amazingly creamy grits!  My clothes still fit, but if this keeps up, I’ll be heading home in a gunnysack, albeit a stylish, black one.)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!

Given that I am writing this about 12 hours after the time I usually blog, I would have to say that the holiday season has officially won, and I’m succumbing to it:  UNCLE!  Oh, there may be a responsible thing or two accomplished in the next few days, but that seems unlikely.  I may poke in next week—or I may not.

And then I’m off to teach at the Converse College low-residency MFA program, and I’m not sure if I’ll have a chance to blog there.  Depends on the wireless situation at the Pine Crest Inn in the mountains of North Carolina, where we’ll be meeting.  Also depends on how fun the after-parties are.

So, until we meet again, happy holidays and happy new year!  I have a good feeling about 2012….

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

John Waters Loves Lionel Shriver, Too!

We saw John Waters perform his one-man Christmas monologue on Sunday night, and he was fabulous and funny.  Famous for, well, I’m not sure how to describe him if you don’t know the wide and vast body of his work, but he’s a Baltimore legend, an actor/writer/filmmaker (you’ve probably heard of Hairspray).  The man is fearless and will say anything, and the range of cultural references in his talk was breath-taking, ranging from Warhol to obscure gay porn film titles to Ivy Compton-Burnett to Justin Bieber.   He’s definitely someone I could listen to for hours, soaking in the stories and his intellect (there’s no other way to say it; he simply has an original and fascinating  mind).  A secret fantasy of mine is to somehow get invited to his famous Christmas party in Baltimore, or, since that’s a bit unrealistic, to run into him some day in Baltimore.

I bought a copy of his most recent book, Role Models, about the various people who inspired him (again, a very wide and eclectic range), and while I haven’t read all of it yet, of course I jumped to the chapter called “Bookworm,” in which he narrows down his collection of 8,425 books to select “John Waters’s Five Books You Should Read to Live a Happy Life If Something Is Basically the Matter with You.”

He had me at this paragraph:

“You should never read for ‘enjoyment.’ Read to make yourself smarter!  Less judgmental.  More apt to understand your friends’s insane behavior, or better yet, your own.  Pick ‘hard books.’  Once you have to concentrate on while reading.  And for God’s sake, don’t let me ever hear you say, ‘I can’t read fiction.  I only have time for the truth.’ Fiction is the truth, fool!  Ever hear of ‘literature’? That means fiction, too, stupid.”

And then he really, really, REALLY had me when one of his five books—out of 8,425, remember—was Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.  !!!  He writes, “Here’s a page-turner from the Devil’s Reading List about a child all parents pray they never have….We Need to Talk About Kevin could bring any parent sobbing to his (or her) knees, yet somehow this book is easy to like.”

Yes, yes, yes, and YES!  Now I know what John and I can chat about when I’m sipping eggnog at his art-filled house in Baltimore.

(He’s wrapping up his tour tonight in Baltimore at the Lyric…worth whatever you might have to pay for tix!)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My Novel Chapter Is Published in The Drum, an Audio Journal!

An excerpt from my historical Chicago novel is now up on The Drum Literary Magazine.  Here’s the Very Cool thing…The Drum is an audio journal, so I’m reading my piece!  This is a moment where I absolutely love technology.

The story will be up for free for three months, and after that, it will be behind a pay wall (I’ve always wanted to exist behind a pay wall, so this is kind of exciting, too).  You can listen directly on your computer or you can easily download stories and essays (why stop with my work—there’s lots of great work available). 

And just so you know before settling in, my chapter is about 45 minutes long.  To enhance your listening experience, I suggest an accompaniment of toast, excellent marmalade, and tea or coffee—a late breakfast vibe (you’ll see why)…just, please, whatever you do, don’t burn the toast!! 

Here are the FAQs, if you’d like more information about the process of how to listen to the stories, and here are the submission guidelines if you’re interested in submitting your own work.  (On paper—if your work is accepted, then you will be instructed on putting together an audio file of proper quality.  The magazine is also looking for performers to read stories.)

You can get info on the email newsletter and podcasts on the home page, which—if you’ve forgotten—is where you can also find my chapter for the next three months!  (Can you tell I’m excited?)

Monday, December 19, 2011

New Lionel Shriver Book Coming in March!

I was delighted to learn that my literary idol, Lionel Shriver, will be coming out with a new novel in March, 2012:  The New Republic.  I will buy anything she writes, of course (as you know if I’ve ever cornered you to rave about We Need to Talk About Kevin…and when will that movie get here already??).  This one is not a book that might initially appeal to me, but Lionel Shriver can do no wrong IMHO, and the book’s backstory is certainly interesting:

“…a novel she wrote in 1998 will finally see the light of day on March 27, 2012. Seems that publishing three bestsellers in a row gives you a little more leeway when it comes to choosing difficult material as your subject.

“As Shriver told the website Culture,  The New Republic deals with terrorism “on a peninsula in Portugal which doesn’t exist—I drew it onto the map. I wrote it in 1998 and at that time I had trouble getting American publishers interested in the manuscript—none of them were interested in terrorism until after 9/11. . . . Now in some ways the US cares too much about terrorism and for a long time I felt it would be wrong to publish something that has a sense of humour about the issue. Enough time has gone by for a droll novel to be well received.”  Read the rest.

This Daily Beast interview with Shriver is titled:  “The Oracle of the Uncomfortable”:

“When asked about the subject of her next novel, American author Lionel Shriver replies simply, “fat.” This will be her “obesity book.” The proposed plot: a woman risks her marriage to help her morbidly overweight brother. [NOTE:  This is the book that will follow The New Republic.]  Not a comfortable theme, perhaps, but that should come as no surprise to Shriver’s admirers. After all, her previous tomes have dealt with terrorism, death, and the failings of the U.S. health-care system, and—in her 2003 bestseller, We Need To Talk About Kevin—the nightmare perils of parenthood. Some writers might hesitate to upset the public with truths usually left unspoken; for Shriver, that’s her business. “There is no point writing book after book about what other people have already addressed ad nauseam. I am always working toward what we have all been avoiding.”

And for some writerly inspiration, here’s the backstory of We Need to Talk About Kevin:

“Kevin, her seventh book, was rejected by 30 publishers. Her own agent advised a wholesale revision to lighten the darkness and add “a lot more humor.” The failure forced her to consider abandoning fiction altogether. Only the faith of an editor at a small London publishing firm saved the book from oblivion. (Shriver parted company with the agent, whom she now describes, with a suggestion of understatement, as “quite annoyed.”) A slow-burn success, the book’s popularity grew by word of mouth. Even before Kevin won the Orange Prize in 2005, one of Britain’s top literary awards, the book already featured on the Times of London’s bestseller list. Early pre-fame admirers included Lynne Ramsay, director of the Kevin movie, who bid for the film rights.”

Read on.  And mark your calendars for the book release!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Work in Progress: My Favorite Christmas Reading

Since I didn’t blog yesterday, my penance is to write about something horrifying and embarrassing, specifically the books and stories that I love to read and reread whenever Christmas rolls around.  Yes, there are highly sophisticated books, poems, and stories about Christmas, but I don’t read those.  Instead, here are my favorites:

Four Midwestern Sisters’ Christmas Book by Holly J. Burkhalter.  Out of print, I bought this in hardcover—back when buying a hardcover was a Very Big Deal for my financial status—and I’ve never regretted it.  It’s about four sisters who grew up in Iowa who think back on their Christmas traditions and memories.  I wouldn’t expect anyone else to love this book as much as I do, but I do love it dearly!  There's an adorable photo--probably also now on the Awkward Photos site--of the sisters and their mother wearing matching homemade, red plaid jumpers over white blouses.

Martha Stewart’s Christmas, 1989 version.  This edition is also out of print, though Lord knows there are more than enough books out there about what Martha thinks we should do for Christmas.  This was the first, though, and there’s something fascinating about looking at the picture of a young Martha mixing up dough for 10 Christmas puddings (i.e. 30 eggs), contemplating laying gold leaf on a gingerbread mansion that has real lights inside, and staring at the dozens of cream puffs in the glorious croquembouche.  Also, the very last photo shows Martha’s daughter Alexis kissing her boyfriend, Sam Waksal, who would later be the source of Martha’s downfall in her stock market escapades.

Treasury of Christmas Stories, edited by Ann McGovern.   It only counts if you have this 1971 edition, which is the edition you bought from the school book sale way back when for the princely sum of sixty cents.  The best selections are the chapter from Little House on the Prairie in which Mr. Edwards meets Santa Claus and brings gifts to Laura and Mary during a blizzard, and, of course, “The Fir Tree” by Hans Christian Anderson.  Every year, even knowing exactly what’s coming, I read this story and sob.  What a writer who can move a reader to tears over the fate of a tree!

I don’t own a separate copy (and why not, I’m wondering right now?) of Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory, but that is another absolute favorite, as he and his friend (i.e. crazy aunt) make special fruitcakes together that they give only to the people they like.  Here’s a beautiful first edition from 1956 that looks like the one to buy, if I happened to have a spare $300-$1000.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Crazy Daisy vs. Ms. Grind

I love this blog post by Karin Gillespie, one of the fiction students in the Converse College Low-Res MFA program.  She writes about the dueling nature of the writer’s brain and the writing process:

“Have you ever read the work of a young, uncorrupted writer? It’s like venturing into a jungle: Fresh. Green. Wild. Monkeys beating their furry chests. Parrots shrieking. Anacondas curling around trees. A chaos of creativity.

“Such a writer is ruled almost entirely by her subconscious. The subconscious—let’s call her Crazy Daisy -- doesn’t know the difference between a gerund and a dangling participle; she only cares about expressing herself. Writing is play, not work.

“Unfortunately Crazy Daisy, charming as she is, has a problem: Her work meanders like a toddler strewing petals at a wedding: she needs to be reined in.  Enter Ms. Grind.

 Ms. Grind cares about the rules.”

How to resolve this tension and use it to our advantage? Who wins, Crazy Daisy or Ms. Grind?  Read on to see!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Link Corral: $$, To Self-Publish or Not, and New on Redux

No one should go into writing to get rich, but a little money along the way is nice.  Here’s a list of literary journals that pay when they publish your work: 


Pondering self-publication?  Here’s a good piece on why one writer decided not to go that direction:

“Many of the writers who have found success in self-publishing are writers of straightforward genre fiction. Amanda Hocking writes young adult fantasy, dwarfs and all. Valerie Forster, who published traditionally before setting out on her own, writes legal thrillers. Romance, too, often does just fine without a publisher. Aside from Anthropology of An American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann, I can’t think of another literary novel that enjoyed critical praise and healthy sales when self-published. That’s not to say that it can’t — and shouldn’t — happen, it’s only to point out that it’s a tougher road for writers of certain sorts of stories. Readers like me aren’t seeking out self-published books. Why not? That’s for another essay. (Please, can someone else write that one?) Until the likes of Jeffrey Eugenides and Alice Munro begin publishing their work via CreateSpace, I don’t see the landscape for literary fiction changing anytime soon.”

You may not agree with every point, but they are points worth considering.


You’ll love Paula Whyman’s story now on Redux; it’s that best combination of funny and poignant.  "The Rose Garden" previously appeared in North Dakota Quarterly.

“…Elizabeth rode through the patter of rain, safely dry in the back seat of the cab, and imagined her hosts.  “Tim”—the only name the travel agent had provided—would be a tall yet small-boned man in his early sixties with a reddish-gray beard.  Nearsighted, he would wear those magnifying half-glasses you could buy in the drug store, because he just didn’t care about fashion.  His wife (Mrs. Tim?) would be a heavy-set woman as tall as her husband who spoke only to ask pointed questions.  She would dislike women who wore perfume to breakfast.  The wife had an eye for artful clutter, but Tim was the better cook. 

“The parlor would smell like cinnamon, which Elizabeth liked, or apple spice tea, which she did not.  There would be two cats who kept out of sight, except to appear out of nowhere and rub suddenly across the ankles, and she would have to stop herself from shoving them gently away with her instep, instead smiling at her host, commiserating about the foibles of cats.

“The saddest words, what might have been.  Who wrote that?  She and Cleve had always preferred to sit at their own table for breakfast.  But this time was different because she was alone….”

Monday, December 12, 2011

Free Fiction Workshop at G.W. in DC; Apps Due 1/9

Looking for 2012 info?  Go here.

The Jenny McKean Moore Free Community Workshop is one of the best deals in the DC writing world.  Each year, a writer comes to DC to be in residence at George Washington University, and part of their obligation includes teaching a FREE, semester-long writing class.  Yes, FREE.  All you have to do is follow the application directions and keep your fingers crossed that your manuscript will be accepted.  That’s right, even the application process is FREE!  (Thank you, Jenny McKean Moore.)

The visiting writer this year, Tim Johnston, will be focusing on the short story.

As per usual, GWU seems not to recognize that a website with this information would be helpful, so these are the directions in their entirety:
The George Washington University Jenny McKean Moore Free Community Workshop
Fall 2011-Art of the Story

Tuesdays, 7 – 9 p.m., January 24, 2012 – May 1, 2012
Led by Tim Johnston

Come and take part in a semester-long fiction workshop! To apply you do NOT need academic qualifications or publications.  The class will include some readings, writing exercises, and inducements to revise, but will mainly be a roundtable critique of work submitted by class members.  There are no fees to participate in the class, but you will be responsible for making enough copies of your stories for all 15 participants. Students at Consortium schools (including GWU) are not eligible.

To apply, please submit a letter of interest and a sample of your writing no more than 7 pages in length.  Make sure you include your name, address, home and work telephone numbers, and email address.  Application materials will not be returned.  Applications must be received at the following address by close of business on Monday, January 9, 2012:

JMM Fiction Workshop
Department of English
The George Washington University
801  22nd Street, NW (Suite 760)
Washington, DC 20052

Tim Johnston is the Jenny McKean Moore Writer in Washington for 2011 –2012.  He is the author of the prize-winning story collection Irish Girl, and the novel Never So Green.

The GWU is an equal opportunity institution.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Work in Progress: My Favorite Books of 2011

Luckily, I don’t have to be as rigid as other “best of” lists that must restrict themselves to books that were published during a particular year.  Also, I don’t have to fill out the list to make a round and tidy ten or winnow down to five.  These are simply the books I most enjoyed reading this year and, also, less simply, books that changed my writing life in a profound way.  Flipping through the pages of my book journal, it was immediately evident which books would end up on this list.  In chronological order of when I read them:

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell:  the tense, insular world of the proud and poverty-stricken Ozarks

Normal People Don’t Live Like This by Dylan Landis: mother and daughter navigating their relationship and growing up in 1970s New York City

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black: short stories about the desperate, private griefs of everyday people

The Dry Well by Marlin Barton: lightly linked short stories set in rural Alabama

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James:  vibrant, young Isabel Archer leaves America to find herself in Europe

The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge: Scott’s doomed expedition to Antarctica, as narrated by several members of the travel party

Atonement by Ian McEwan: a young girl misinterprets an action and lives are changed forever

How are these books similar?  An emphasis on setting that puts me into a world I’m unfamiliar with, a focus on precise and interesting language, and a whole, whole lot of sorrow.  I guess that’s my formula!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Writing Prompts for a Rainy, Dreary Day

These two writing prompts worked very well this morning in my neighborhood prompt group:

1.  “Someone lied.”

2.  “Unless you believe, you won’t understand.” ~St. Augustine

Fifteen minutes on each…now go!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

New on Redux

Check out “Hot Coffee, Summer,” a short story by Christine Grillo that previously appeared in the Southern Review:

“Saturday, and Franco woke up all vinegar. He didn’t want the kids climbing into our bed. He didn’t want the kids getting lippy. He wanted only the paper and some hot coffee, so he made the coffee, but the percolator’s dying, so the coffee was bad, like tea. It was so light, he couldn’t even put milk in it.

“Already, this early, the kitchen was summer hot. I made eggs and dealt with the children. Franco drank his disappointing coffee and read the papers, the Sun and yesterday’s Il Giornale, and he huffed at their pages. He grumbled in English, and he cursed in Italian.

“Joseph, my little Joseph, our little Joseph, padded over and asked him, “What’s the bad news, Daddy?”

Also, Redux will have an open reading period in January 2012.  Go here for more details.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Interview with The Sun Magazine's Managing Editor

Everyone knows I love The Sun magazine!  Here’s a recent interview with managing editor Tim McKee that illuminates some of the many reasons I continue to subscribe to and recommend this beautiful, thought-provoking, occasionally uncomfortable magazine:

Tegan Swanson: A reader characterizes The Sun as showing “the beauty, the wonder & the dirty truth of the human spirit” – why do you think this is representative of your artistic aesthetic?

Tim McKee: The dirty truth is pretty key – beauty and wonder is important, but we don’t want to leave out the hard part.  We don’t shy away from occupying the messy parts of life.  A Sun reader is someone at a party, if you ask them how they are, they’d much prefer to stand in the corner with you and have a conversation for 45 minutes, rather than the superficial social moment.  There are a lot of party conversations in the media – we’re not interested in furthering small talk, or illusions that life is easy or simple.  That’s the writing that we gravitate towards….

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Work in Progress: Gimmicks vs. Innovation

Here’s a question that’s been on my mind:  When is a variation on traditional form a gimmick and when is it a true innovation, a necessary element to the work?

A couple of weeks ago, I was skipping around in the latest edition of The Best American Short Stories and happened to come across two stories that eschewed quotation marks.  I’ve seen this before, of course, and it’s not as though it’s a big deal to drop quotation marks.  I could (mostly) follow the dialogue.  And yet…why?  I suppose there are valid reasons to drop those oh-so-intrusive tiny marks:  to express a feeling that characters are speaking out of bounds, perhaps, or to evoke the sense of a vast landscape where nothing is hemmed in.  But—it seems to me—that there really should be a purposeful reason to drop something that’s such standard usage, and I wasn’t convinced that was the case in these particular stories.  And sometimes writers use dashes instead of quotation marks.  How are a bunch of dashes less intrusive?  Either way, the dashes or lack of standard quotation marks draws attention, and is that where the writer wants the reader’s attention going, to pondering punctuation?

I’ve also been working on a story with footnotes.  I suppose everyone imagines that footnotes in fiction started with David Foster Wallace, but Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine is an excellent example of footnotes gone wild in fiction, published in 1986, and I seem to remember a footnoted short story in Harper’s magazine by Jennifer Egan that may have been published before DFW came to prominence.  In any event, now that our computers make producing footnotes SO easy, it’s a tempting form to try, and I admit that I greatly enjoyed my foray into footnotes.  Yet—being naturally suspicious of anything that feels good—I kept wondering if my footnotes were “necessary” or if they were “gimmicky.”  I’m not sure I can answer definitively, but the tension inherent in using the form helped inform the story (I hope) and made me think about writing in a different way.  That is, I mentally had to keep proving to myself that the footnotes—and therefore the story—were necessary; I had to ensure that the story could not be told another way, and I think (hope) that rigor was to the story’s benefit.

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney is one of my favorite books, for a variety of reason (not all are artistic reasons…who doesn’t enjoy good New Yorker insider gossip?). Of course one of the artistic reasons is that the book successfully uses the second person point of view (“you”).  McInerney makes it look easy as pie, but it’s not.  I’ve played around with the second person—I seem to be very drawn to it—and what I’ve noticed is that, again, this device has to be used very purposefully or it turns immediately into a gimmick.  Why must the story be told this way; why can’t the writer replace “I” for every “you”?  If it’s possible to do that, then do.  I’m drawn to the dissociation of the second person, and my second person stories play off that theme, as does Bright Lights, Big City.  Still, I can’t imagine pulling off an entire book.  (Here’s one of my second person stories, published in The Sun magazine.)

Ultimately, one of the problems with trying these little tricks is that you run the risk of looking merely derivative of those who have gone before:
Second person = McInerney
Footnotes = DFW
Spanglish = Junot Diaz
Power Point presentation = Jennifer Egan
(It shouldn’t have to be said that the work of these writers is much more expansive than these easy equations imply.  But the reality is that if you use any of these forms, you’re up against these [perceived] originators.)

How can you make your story or book move beyond what those writers have accomplished?  And, more importantly, what innovative technique can you try—in a purposeful way—that no one else has tried yet?  That, it seems to me, is the real question to ask when experimenting with form.


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