Monday, January 31, 2011

10,000 Page Poetry Book Published

My father sent me this newspaper clipping from—it looks like—the Iowa City Press-Citizen (that’s a real stylebook, when one recognizes a font despite not having read the publication regularly for a zillion years):


“The University of Iowa is considering a book it recently put through the binding process to the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s thickest book.

“According to a news release, “Poetry City Marathon,” a collection of poetry written by Iowa City poet David Morice, has 10,000 pages and measures 2 feet thick. The book was written by Morice during a 100-day poetry marathon this summer as part of the celebration of Iowa City being named a UNESCO City of Literature.

"The book took 24 hours, spread over four days, to bind.”

I’ll quote my father’s note: “Do you think there’s a market for this poetry book?” My response: I hope this guy has a large family and a lot of very loyal friends….

Here’s a picture of the final product: (there’s also a link so you can read the whole book, if you’re so inclined)

If you’re interested in binding conundrums, here’s a blog post from the UI library that explains how the book was bound:

And you can find the (extensive) Wikipedia biography of David Morice here:

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Work in Progress: The MFA Question

I'm often asked, do you need an MFA to be a writer? Of course you don’t; to be a writer, you need to write. That’s misleadingly simple. I like to answer the question with a list (naturally) that also includes some questions to ponder and some unsolicited advice. So, here goes:

What to think about when you think about a graduate program in writing:

--I had some amazing teachers that saved me a lot of time by showing me a path through the thicket of writing. Not all of those teachers were in my MFA workshops, so there are excellent teachers everywhere. But, yes, teachers really can teach you quite a bit!

--While many graduate programs have “famous” writers you revere and admire on the faculty, being a “famous” writer doesn’t automatically make one a good teacher. So when you’re considering plunking down the $$ to go to a graduate program, do your homework and check out the faculty.

--Doing your homework means:
A) Reading the work by the core faculty. If everyone on the faculty is writing in a traditional style and your writing is more experimental, it probably isn’t a good match.
B) Speaking to students who are in the program or who recently graduated. This is how you can find out about the teaching. Facebook can be a good resource for finding students, or you can ask the program director for some students to chat with.
C) Show up, if you can. Go to a reading sponsored by the program and get a feel for the place: is the atmosphere friendly and welcoming? Do the faculty attend the reading? Are the questions in the Q&A lively? Or, if you’re at a conference, talk to the writers who teach and ask them about their schools.

--Don’t expect that you’ll automatically get a teaching job after you graduate. If you want to teach—and be sure that you really do want to; it’s not a requirement to being a writer, and may even be a detriment!—you will need a graduate degree. But, to teach creative writing, you will most likely also need a published book (or some amazing, New Yorker-like publications). The degree is no guarantee, and don’t make a mistake imagining that it is. (If you want to teach, try to get some experience while you’re in school. And expect that you’ll be teaching mostly comp while a TA and probably after you graduate and perhaps even for the rest of your life.)

--Think about money. Will attending graduate school put you in debt for the rest of your life? Are you okay with that? There's value to the idea of devoting time/energy/resources to learning to be a better writer--good teachers can help you leapfrog ahead of yourself in terms of writing progress. Will knowing that you’re spending all this money (and time and making the other sacrifices needed) make you take your writing more seriously? There is always going to be a higher standard for critique and study in a graduate program—not to mention the more rigorous reading requirements. Do you want/need someone else to impose those standards upon you; at what price?

--Perhaps the greatest benefit of a graduate writing program is the community, during and after. Maybe you will meet people who will be friends for life, or who will read and comment on your work for life, or who will become high-powered editors/writers who can help you. Maybe. At the least, you’ll be surrounded by a group of people who care deeply about writing/literature and who want to follow the same path of artful pursuit you do.

--Probably this should be a whole separate discussion because I won’t do it justice here, but think about what you want to write. If all you want to write is science fiction (or romance) or some other genre, you WILL learn to be a better writer in a graduate writing program. But your path may be rougher and more challenging than if your interests were more literary. Again, do your homework: How does the program feel about less “literary” writing?

Unsolicited advice I have for all MFA students:

--Read the books your teachers have written. Ask your teachers questions about their work: how did you handle dialogue? Why did you decide to give the main character 6 brothers? Etc. Talk!

--Make the most of every opportunity. If your teacher offers individual meetings/office hours, go. If your teacher/peers hang out after class for booze or coffee, and it’s within your realm to attend, go. If your teachers/peers are reading their work, go. If the “famous” visiting writer needs a ride somewhere and you can offer one, go. In short, just go-go-GO!

--Write things down. If your teacher mentions a book/journal/article that was influential to him/her, write it down. Look it up. Think seriously about reading it, if not immediately, at some point. Teachers don’t say these things for no reason, you know!

--Be organized and timely. Get your work done. Try not to be a problem.

--Don’t suck up. Instead, be a nice, interested, interesting person, and you won’t need to suck up. Ask questions instead, and don’t talk only about yourself and your own projects. Be involved in the larger world.

--Be the person in your program who organizes, whether it’s a potluck or a new online literary journal or a fun night bowling. It takes effort to keep your community connected, so pull an oar.

--Thank your teachers at the end of the semester, even the teachers you didn’t like. You probably learned more from them than you think you did.

--Don’t race your way through the program. This is probably the only time in your life where you have all these smart people devoted to you and your writing…take your time and enjoy it.

What about the Low-Res MFA?

Unique advantages to the low-res:
--You don’t need to move and/or uproot your life to go to school.
--There’s a nice mix between workshop interaction and individual, devoted attention to your work.
--Speaking as a fiction teacher, I think it's easier to work on the novel form since you have one mentor for a solid chunk of time who can read a good amount of your work in a sustained way.
--The residency location can be a plus: i.e. if you like the mountains, choose a low-res program located in/near the mountains!
--The reading list can be self-directed so you're reading materials that resonate with you.

Disadvantages to the low-res:
--That word above, "self-directed": this type of program would be a disaster for a certain type of person, who's a totally disorganized procrastinator. In the low-res, you really have to make yourself do the work.
--Things are changing, but typically there are less fellowship and funding opportunities available at low-res programs, so the onus of finding a way to pay for the program comes from the student: savings, student loans
--There may be limited TA opportunities.

Disclosure: I teach at the Converse College Low-Residency MFA Program and at the more traditional Johns Hopkins Master of Arts in Writing Program.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Dzanc Prize Rewards Good Writing & Community Service

I always thought the Dzanc Prize was a great idea: $5000 given to a literary writer to apply towards a writing community service project. There’s no fee to enter, and the deadline has been extended to March 1, 2011. The application process is very specific, so be sure to check out the website for all the details.

In general, though:

In 2007, to further its mission of fostering literary excellence, community involvement, and education, Dzanc Books created the Dzanc Prize, which provides monetary aid in the sum of $5,000, to a writer of literary fiction. All writers applying for the Dzanc Prize must have a work-in-progress they can submit for review, and present the judges with a Community Service Program they can facilitate somewhere in the United States. Such programs may include anything deemed "educational" in relation to writing. Examples would include: working with HIV patients to help them write their stories; doing a series of workshops at a drop-in youth homeless center; running writing programs in inner-city schools; or working with older citizens looking to write their memoirs. All community programs under the Dzanc Prize must run for a full year….

There is no fee to enter and the winner--based on a literary work in progress and a literary community service project that the author plans to run--receives $5,000 from Dzanc Books and the possible publication of their finished work. Please look at our past winners and realize we're looking for great work here, both in regard to the writing and the service, and also not necessarily hoping to repeat similar community services over and over.

More information:

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How to Survive AWP

It’s getting to be that time…the AWP conference looms ahead next week, and writers everywhere are starting to feel edgy. What to expect? What to wear? What to drink? The Huffington Post posted some good AWP survival tips yesterday, and of course I’ve already offered my thoughts on where to eat (a priority, as far as I’m concerned).

To complete the picture, here are my own conference survival tips, based on my post last year:

Wear comfortable shoes, at least most of the day. There’s lots of traipsing around long hallways and the long (sometimes uncarpeted) aisles of the book fair. It’s also inevitable that the one panel you really, really, really want to see will be in a teeny-tiny room and you’ll have to stand in the back…or sit on the floor; see the following tip:

Wear comfortable clothes, preferably taking a layer approach. Wherever you go, you will end up either in A) an incredibly stuffy room that will make you melt, or B) a room with an arctic blast directed at you. Bulk up and strip down as needed. Also, as noted above, the AWP conference staff has a knack for consistently misjudging the size of room required for a subject matter/speakers (i.e. Famous Writer in room with 30 chairs; grad student panel on Use of Dashes in Obscure Ancient Greek Poet in room with 300 chairs), so you may find yourself scrunched into a 2’x2’ square on the carpet; see the following tip:

To avoid being stuck sitting on the floor, arrive early to panels you really, really want to attend. If you are stuck on the floor, hold your ground with a big bag and/or coat to get yourself some extra space. Whatever you do, do not be nice and squeeze over…those panels can seem VERY LONG when someone’s knee is wedged in your ribs.

If a panel is bad, ditch it. Yes, it’s rude. Yes, everyone does it. (Be better than the rest by at least waiting for an appropriate break, but if you must go mid-word, GO.) I can’t tell you the high caliber of presenters that I have walked out on, but think Very High. Remember that there are a thousand other options, and you have choices. The only time you have to stick it out is if A) the dull panel participant is your personal friend or B) the dull panel participant is/was your teacher or C) the dull panel participant is your editor/publisher. Those people will notice (and remember) that you abandoned them mid-drone and punish you accordingly (i.e. your glowing letters of rec will instead incinerate). Undoubtedly this is why I have never been published in Unnamed Very High Caliber Magazine, having walked out on the editor’s panel.

There are zillions of panels: When you pick up your registration badge, you’ll get a massive tome with information about all of them, and—if last year is an indication—also a shorter schedule that’s easy to carry around. Take some time right away to read through the tome and circle the panels you want to attend on your master schedule. Then ditch the tome. Better yet, go to the AWP website now and read through the schedule and decide now where you want to be when. No point waking up early on Friday if there’s nothing you want to attend. I checkmark panels I might go to if nothing better is going on and star those that I will make a supreme effort to attend.

Someone will always ask a 20-minute question that is not so much a question but a way of showing off their own (imagined) immense knowledge of the subject and an attempt to erase the (endlessly lingering) sting of bitterness about having their panel on the same topic rejected. Don’t be that person. Keep your question succinct and relevant. Maybe even write it down first, before you start to endlessly ramble, because, you know, you’re a writer. And yes, if you are “that person,” everyone will mimic your annoying question to their friends in the bookfair aisle, and your career is over.

Don’t ever say anything gossipy on the elevator, unless you want the whole (literary) world to know it. Do listen up to the conversations of others on the elevator, and tell your friends what you’ve overheard over your offsite dinner, embellishing as necessary.

Same advice above exactly applies to the overpriced hotel bar.

Support the publications at the bookfair. Set a budget for yourself in advance, and spend some money on literary journals and books and subscriptions, being sure to break your budget. Do this, and then you won’t feel bad picking up the stuff that’s been heavily discounted or now being given away free on the last day of the conference. But, please, do spend some money!

Just because something is free, you don’t have to take it. Unless you drove, you’ll have to find a way to bring home all these heavy books/journals on an airplane. Or you’ll have to wait in line at the hotel’s business center to ship them home. So, be as discerning as you can when you see that magic markered “free” sign on top of a pile of sad looking journals, abandoned by the grad students with hangovers who didn’t feel like dealing with their university's bookfair table.

It may be too late for some of you, but it’s inevitable that you will see every writer you’ve ever met in the aisle of the bookfair at one AWP or another…so I hope you were nice to all of them and never screwed anyone over. Because, yes, they will remember, and it’s not fun reliving all that drama as the editors to The Georgia Review gaze on.

Escape! Whether it’s offsite dinners/drinks/museums/walks through park/mindless shopping or whatever, do leave at some point. You will implode if you don’t. In DC, some unexpected, less familiar pleasures that I like to recommend are:

--The Phillips Collection (fabulous art in an intimate setting)

--the guide's talk at the newly refurbished Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln was shot (but no need to wait in line to see the house where Lincoln died that’s across the street; it’s not very interesting)

--the Museum of Crime and Punishment (a 1001 story ideas here for sure; better than the Spy Museum, IMHO)

--a walk through the pretty neighborhoods in Georgetown (stop in at Martin’s Tavern and sit at John Kennedy’s favorite booth!)

--the National Archives, to view the original Declaration of Independence and Constitution; the museum is excellent, too--letters from Elvis to Richard Nixon, for example

Self-serving notice: If you're looking for something fun to do on Saturday night, come to the off-site reading The Sun is hosting; I'll be reading from an essay that appeared in the magazine. More details:

Have fun, everybody!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Guest in Progress: Becky Wolsk's Guide to Self-Publishing, Part 2

There was such interest in the first part of Becky’s post last week about self-publishing, that I thought I’d better run Part 2 sooner, rather than later. Remember, there is more information on Becky’s fabulous blog: And please read more about her books here:

A Guide to Self Publishing, Part 2
By Becky Wolsk



I hired a professional photographer, Marissa Rauch, to take my picture for the back cover and for my promo postcard. The cost of hiring a professional photographer was worth it—my cover looks professional in large part due to her photo.


Amazon’s main CreateSpace site has some information on Kindle publishing, but if you’re interesting in publishing Kindle editions, it is better to go directly to their Kindle publishing site. They call it Kindle Direct Publishing (*

* Note: KINDLE DIRECT PUBLISHING is the new name of what used to be DIGITAL TEXT PLATFORM. Amazon says all services remain the same.

The customer service representative who phoned me to set up my Kindle conversion was smart and knowledgeable. As importantly, she was easy to reach for follow-up questions via email. I’m grateful to CreateSpace for enabling me to email her directly, instead of having to go through the anonymous roulette of a general tech support email address.


I quickly designed my promotional postcards thanks to the easy interface at This printing company is eco-friendly. I have no personal connection to them, but I hope Pixxlz will thrive so they will always be available if I need to do more promotional printing. I used the author photo from my back cover for this promotional postcard, in addition to photos of my book covers.

I didn’t buy bookmarks or any other type of promotional swag, and I don’t think I will--not that there’s anything wrong with them (to paraphrase Seinfeld).

I send out a huge number of holiday cards every year, and I included my promotional postcards in those envelopes so I wouldn’t have to do a separate mailing. On the back of the postcard, in the area that normally says “Place Stamp Here,” I put “Please Spread The Word.” I’m proud of that tweak.


Per novel, all I had to pay CreateSpace up front was an optional $39 for a Pro Plan (this gives me a better royalty rate). I also had to pay for my proofs, and I had to order several proofs because I make several mistakes that I had missed during the proofreading stage.

Since the books were published, I have spent a few hundred dollars ordering them for close friends and family, and ordering complimentary copies for bookstores and for promotional purposes. I get an author’s discount of $4.50 when I buy the books. Amazon’s list price is $12 for the paperback, and $8 for the Kindle version. I make $2.80 in royalties for each paperback, and $5.60 for Kindle editions because ebooks are cheaper for Amazon to produce. At this time, I do not have a distributor, and I haven’t researched that process much because it’s too expensive for me right now to pay for a distributor.

I didn’t pay any costs for my interior file because I used Microsoft Word to format it, and my Mac makes PDF conversion easy and free. I paid about $175 in cover file costs, not including the cost of a professional photographer.

With regard to Kindle conversion, I paid Amazon $70 per novel to do it for me, because I was exhausted from paperback formatting. I simply uploaded the same PDF interior and cover files that I had used for the paperback versions. I don’t know how much it would cost to only publish an ebook through Amazon, since I already had files ready from my paperback formatting.

Since my novels have been released, I find self-publishing to be as rewarding as if I had published with a well-known New York City publishing house. In fact, self-publishing rewards me more, because I’ve done it myself and I am my own boss. In closing, I want to thank Leslie for letting me guest-blog. Guest-blogging is an enjoyable, collegial way to promote one’s work.

For more information and a complete bibliography of helpful sites/resources:

About: Becky Wolsk writes and quilts through her cottage industry of Text Isle Patchwork. By November 1, 2011, she will self-publish The Text Isle Patchwork Cookbook, most likely through CreateSpace. You can visit her online portfolio at Her blog,, focuses on writing, quilting, and cookbooking. It also provides weekly book reviews, mostly of forgotten jewels and other books that deserve more attention. Becky lives in Washington, DC with her husband and daughter.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Guest in Progress: Guide to Self-Publishing by Becky Wolsk

I’m so pleased to present this VERY helpful, VERY smart, and VERY honest guide to the new world of self-publishing, by guest writer Becky Wolsk, who I met in one of my workshops at the Writer’s Center. If you’re thinking about taking the plunge into the brave new world of self-publishing, you’ll find answers to your questions both here and in some helpful follow-up on Becky’s blog: She’s a walking resource! (And she names names and gives numbers, too!)

And I will vouch for Becky’s final products. I have a beautiful copy of FOOD AND WORRY on my shelf, beckoning to be read! (How could I resist a title like that, featuring two of my prime past-times?)

Self-Publishing Advice for Novel Writers, Part 1
By Becky Wolsk

Until September 2010, I felt snarky about self-publishing. My two novels, Food and Worry and Six Words, made me proud enough to assume that perseverance would lead me into the arms of an eager agent. I liked the agent hunt, because it was straightforward, unlike fiction writing and revising. I wrote a confident how-to article about my agent search for this blog in June 2007.

Long story short: I couldn’t find an agent to offer me representation. For my first novel, Food and Worry I queried 200 agents (between May 2005 and the end of 2009). For my second, Six Words, I queried 100 agents between February and September of 2010.

On September 1, I began the book-formatting process, and almost exactly two months later, on November 2, paperback editions of both novels were available for sale on Amazon. By Thanksgiving, the Kindle editions were available too.

I self-published both of my novels at once because I was sick of seeing them languish unshared in my desk drawer. Also, I mistakenly thought I’d just have to upload a Microsoft Word file. Why not upload both novels on the same day?

But self-publishing wasn’t easy an easy process, because I wanted to do it as cheaply as possible. Despite my ignorance of desktop publishing, I muddled through on my own. If you’re now in the same boat, I hope this account will help you navigate with less frustration.


Formatting is slower when overlooked typos barge in like blemishes. And did you overuse the adjective “very”? Do your characters too frequently start sentences with “Oh,” or “Well,…”

And now for the most unwelcome news in this article:

Even though you are self-publishing, you still need to get permission for quotes, especially if you are publishing fiction. Leslie mentioned the need to get permission from rights-holders in a workshop that I took with her in 2007. I forgot her admonition, or I repressed it. So I didn’t begin writing permission request letters until I had begun formatting, and I wish I’d done it much sooner. This is a bigger deal if you want to quote song lyrics.

According to my research, “fair use” doesn’t apply to fiction, and even if you use a very short quote, you still need permission. Many writers, especially on the Internet, will tell you differently. Since I’m yet another non-lawyer-writer on the Internet, I can’t provide reliable legal advice, so instead check out attorney Joy R. Butler’s The Permission Seeker’s Guide Through the Legal Jungle. Joy Butler specializes in entertainment, intellectual property, and business law. This article, “Staying Legal When Using Quotes,” from her blog is particularly helpful.


I researched the self-publishing websites that are flourishing as the self-publishing stigma decays (and as non-techies become more savvy from holiday card customization on services like Shutterfly).

Although I read equally good things about Lulu, Blurb, and Amazon’s CreateSpace, I quickly chose CreateSpace because Amazon is the most recognizable company. I published in paperback first, then Kindle a few weeks later, at a reduced price. (I discuss costs below.)

Because CreateSpace’s barebones service is almost free, the articles they offer in their Help section are too cursory for formatting novices. I’m not criticizing them for this—you get what you pay for, and if you want to pay for their services, they offer packages that make this process easy. I didn’t go that route because the price range was too steep for me: $300 to $5000. Their packages feature copyediting, formatting, and marketing services.
For a really helpful table which compares prices and features of each package, put this URL address into your browser window (direct-linking with that URL for some reason doesn’t work):

CreateSpace compensates for their lackluster Help files by hosting an outstanding community forum. Createspace’s forum contributors are good Samaritans, but it was time-consuming to decide whose advice to follow.

Get an ISBN number free from CreateSpace, or buy one from Bowker. There are advantages to buying your ISBN from Bowker that are beyond the scope of this article, but I decided to buy mine after reading an excellent article by math educator Larry Zafran at

If you are publishing editions in different formats (paperback and Kindle, for example), you will need an ISBN number for each format.

STEP FOUR: FORMATTING THE INTERIOR FILES (An interior file includes all text and images between the bookcovers.)

Interior files (and cover files) must be uploaded to Amazon in PDF form, so if you are a Windows person, or if you don’t know how to create PDFs on a Mac, you’ll need a PDF converter.

Despite the advice of the best forum members, who find Microsoft Word to be mediocre for formatting, I still chose to format the interior file of my manuscript with Microsoft Word for Mac. This process was made easier after I found an outstandingly helpful template from a kind, smart person who goes by the mysterious name of “tinhorn.” He or she works for Dixie Press (they offer formatting services, but I haven’t tried them). If you go with the tinhorn template, and if you’re publishing with CreateSpace, don’t be put off by the fact that tinhorn’s template is designed for Lulu. It works equally well for CreateSpace.

I also benefited from these websites:

Bryce Beattie provides a wealth of good information including screenshots, which are an invaluable visual aid.

The Catherine, Caffeinated blog: Author Catherine Ryan Howard is so generous with her detailed, humorous advice. Start with these two links:

J.R. Dunster

David Griffiths

If you publish on CreateSpace, you might also consider buying Walton Mendelson’s Build Your Book. His ebook and his CreateSpace community forum postings are frequently recommended by CreateSpace self-publishers


For my cover, I purchased 2 stock photos from for less than $100 dollars. I am grateful to Karen McQuestion for recommending stock photos in her wonderful blog posts. She’s a very successful self-published author.

CreateSpace offers a Cover Creator template for people who want to design their own covers as quickly and easily as possible, but I didn’t like any of the templates. Several people on the CreateSpace forums recommended open source software like Gimp and Scribus for file formatting, because those programs are cheaper and so comparable to Photoshop. I admire open source software, and wish I were an open source ninja, but these two programs took too long for me to figure out on my own. I didn’t want to pay for expensive Photoshop, and at the time, I didn’t know that Adobe’s Photoshop Elements is only $100, and simpler to learn than full Photoshop.

For $100, I purchased standard edition book cover software from the aptly named Book Cover Pro. This worked better than the other alternatives I tried.

[You're almost there, authors--to be continued next week…!]

About: Becky Wolsk writes and quilts through her cottage industry of Text Isle Patchwork. By November 1, 2011, she will self-publish The Text Isle Patchwork Cookbook, most likely through CreateSpace. You can visit her online portfolio at Her blog,, focuses on writing, quilting, and cookbooking. It also provides weekly book reviews, mostly of forgotten jewels and other books that deserve more attention. Becky lives in Washington, DC with her husband and daughter.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Where You Should Eat at AWP in DC

Okay, in anticipation of the AWP Conference, during which thousands of writers will descend upon Washington, DC, bringing with them angst; an edgy nervous energy; a vast and yearning neediness; and a lovely swirl of conversation about books, writers, writing, and booze, I will offer some suggestions to address the all-important question of WHERE TO EAT. Just one warning: I may be holding back a couple of spots that I want to keep for myself. Okay, another warning: I’m not looking up links, so get ready to google. And a last warning: you’ll need reservations at most of these places.

Bad news: The immediate neighborhood of the AWP Conference hotels—Woodley Park—does not really have any destination restaurants in easy walking distance (possible exception: Lebanese Taverna). Good news: There are close neighborhoods that do, and the metro isn’t that hard to figure out (though count on running into at least one broken escalator and a delayed train. Also, good luck figuring out the obscure new fare structure. Haha—funny because it’s all true.).

Anyway, places I like in:

Dupont Circle
Levante: Middle Eastern
City Lights of China: Chinese food
Hotel Dupont: classy drinks (wait, don’t go there; I’m going there!)
Tabard Inn: nice; American food
Luna Café: very casual American
Zorba Café: very casual, Greek
Thaiphoon: Thai, casual

Also, The Phillips Collection is a lovely, manageable art museum in this neighborhood if you need a break from the scary writers.

Cleveland Park
Palena: fancy (okay, I haven’t been here, but it’s always in the top restaurants of the city…bring your gold card!)

Ardeo/Bardeo: very nice, wine bar & small plates (okay, I haven’t been here either, but I’m dying to go)

U Street:
Sorry that I’m not hip enough to get to many restaurants here, though if you want an AMAZING (and not cheap) craft cocktail experience, check out The Gibson. HIGHLY recommended! (And reservations are essential.)

Oh, and everyone MUST go to Ben’s Chili Bowl, a true DC institution. Even Barack Obama had to stop by early on in his term. Late at night you might have to stand in line, but if you’re drunk enough, you won’t care.

And if I’m not hip enough for U Street, I’m really not hip enough for the new and truly hip neighborhood, The Atlas District. But drop it frequently into conversation as I do.

Oh dang, I'm not even sure if there's anyplace good in Adams Morgan anymore, though Cashion's Eat Place used to be a reliable choice. I've got to get out more...

Penn Quarter:
This is where I do most of my eating. Lots of choices, both for food and drinks, though things get crowded whenever there’s a home hockey/basketball game.

Teaism: lovely, casual tea and light Asian fare; amazing salted oatmeal cookies (inexpensive; I think there’s also a branch at Dupont Circle, though this is the nicest branch IMHO)

Jaleo: Spanish tapas, something to please everyone. A little noisy, but one of my all-around favorite restaurants; not cheap, but a very good value.

P.S. 7: Great and inventive cocktails. New American. I had one incredible meal and one slightly less incredible meal, so I need to go back for the tiebreaker.

Proof: awesome wine bar with awesome food. My husband saw our local “hot babe” sports newscaster here during a happy hour, so obviously a magnet for “celebrities.”

Zaytinya: small plates with a Mediterranean flavor, VERY noisy (Annoying Mike Isabella from the current “Top Chef” worked here; speaking of “Top Chef,” you can also go to Spike’s very casual restaurants on Capitol Hill: We The Pizza, and Good Stuff for burgers…be sure to get the homemade soda at We The Pizza)

South Austin Grill: cheap Tex-Mex. There’s also Rosa’s, but I actually find South Austin better in that cheese-laden, comforting way.

Rasika: the best Indian food you will ever have; nicer than what you think of when you think of an Indian restaurant

Chinatown is at the Penn Quarter metro stop; look for the gaudy Chinese gate and take your pick.

Clyde’s is a reliable, local chain that will please and handle a large, fussy group.

And while you’re here, might as well go to the National Archives and look at the REAL Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Yes, the real ones. Kind of humbling: that’s writing.

Did you just get "that" call from Oprah? Then celebrate here:
Citronelle, in Georgetown: of the best places in town
CityZen, in a neighborhood you wouldn’t go to unless you were going here or worked as a bureaucrat...sigh, my fabulous birthday dinner last year
Plume , the restaurant at the Jefferson Hotel...oh, sigh again, such a beautiful setting
Marcel...sigh, that amazing French sausage

There’s more, but for all the talk about what a “great food town” DC is, I’m not totally convinced. There are good places, but you need to spend $$$. Service is often so-so. And, generally speaking, the best of the ethnic food has migrated to the suburbs. Still, I feel better having steered you in the right direction. Just don’t hog that table that I’m waiting for….

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

More on The Sun Magazine Reading

If you can, please join me at this very, very cool event! The Sun is one of my favorite magazines, and I’m honored to be reading one of my essays from the publication.

You’re invited to a
Reading with authors and editors of
The Sun magazine

Saturday, February 5, 2011
7:30 -8:30 PM

Go Mama Go!
1809 14th St NW
(between S St & Swann St NW)
Washington, DC 20009
(U Street metro station)

This event is held in conjunction with the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) but it is free and open to all, whether you’re registered for the conference or not.

From my essay in The Sun about Robb, my first husband who died:

“Recently, while working on her memoir about Robb, my husband’s mother e-mailed to ask if I knew when he had first read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the famous novel about European colonialism in Africa. Robb had taken a life-changing trip to Kenya in college, a year before I met him, and she thought that Heart of Darkness might have been on the reading list for the class. She remembered it as Robb’s “favorite book.”

“I remember differently.”

About the Sun:
The Sun
is an independent, ad-free monthly magazine that for more than thirty years has used words and photographs to invoke the splendor and heartache of being human. The Sun celebrates life, but not in a way that ignores its complexity. The personal essays, short stories, interviews, poetry, and photographs that appear in its pages explore the challenges we face and the moments when we rise to meet those challenges.

The Sun publishes the work of emerging and established artists who are striving to be thoughtful and authentic. Writing from The Sun has won the Pushcart Prize, been published in Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays, and been broadcast on National Public Radio.

Questions/more info:

March 4-6 Class in PA: "Find Your Creative Voice"

I’m very excited to be teaching a weekend class in Bucks County, PA, on March 4-6; spaces are still available. My class is called “Finding Your Creative Voice”:

"Have you always wanted to write but couldn’t quite find the courage to pick up a pencil? Or perhaps you’re a secret writer, scribbling stories and observations in private notebooks, compulsively filling the pages of your journal? This supportive, hands-on workshop will give you courage to write and direction about how to proceed. Through discussion and a series of writing exercises—including a session with word collage and found objects—participants will learn some basic techniques of fiction and memoir writing, with an eye to encouraging individual expression.

"Beginners will feel comfortable in this workshop, as will those farther along in their studies. All exercises and readings are appropriate for beginners looking for inspiration and for intermediate writers who might be feeling a bit stuck with their project … and everyone in-between!"

You can read more about it here:

Here are the rates and registration information. There are lots of options, depending on whether you have a double or single room; non-writer guests are also welcome to come just to enjoy the getaway. Fees include lodging, breakfast, lunch and coffee breaks, instruction, and use of facilities. (There are also tuition only rates.)

You can take a photo tour of the beautiful Stone Ridge Farm Country Inn here.

Let me know if you have questions about the class: Lpietr AT aol DOT com.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Award for VA Writers Announced

From the James River Writers (JRW):

To recognize those who make Virginia a better place for writers:
James River Writers (JRW) now accepting nominations for The Emyl Jenkins Award

The Emyl Jenkins Award honors the memory of Emyl Jenkins, author, JRW Board Member and inspirational friend to all, who died in 2010.

Who may enter:
Any Virginia individual or organization that, in the same spirit as Emyl Jenkins, makes Virginia a better place for writers.

Entry must explain in no more than 500 words how the nominee makes Virginia a better place for writers. Entry must include contact information (e-mail and phone) for the nominator and two others who can further illuminate the nominee's qualifications.

Send nominations by e-mail to or by regular mail to
James River Writers, 320 Hull St., #136, Richmond, VA 23224. There is no entry fee. The contest opens Jan. 1, 2011. Deadline for entries is March 31, 2011.

Judging: A panel of judges, chosen from the JRW board of directors to represent different levels of writing experience, will pick the winner. They will choose the nominee who best matches Emyl Jenkins' efforts to make Virginia a better place for writers. That could be by connecting people and organizations around the written word, by sharing time and expertise about writing or by encouraging writers.

Announcement of winner: The winner will receive an award that honors Emyl Jenkins' work and reflects her style. The award will be presented at the JRW spring fundraiser in 2011.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Work in Progress: 2011 Residency

Well, you had to be there to get the full flow, of course, but I thought I’d note a few of my memorable highlights from the Converse College Low-Residency MFA get-together last week:

--Elizabeth (Betsy) Cox was the keynote speaker, and she was inspiring on every possible level. She read the story “Saved,” found in her collection Bargains in the Real World, about a girl who decides to “save” people and starts off by cold-calling the local bar. She’s a great reader, with such a rich voice and Southern accent, that the crowd was mesmerized.

--Betsy’s craft lecture the next morning was also inspiring. I was
fortunate enough to sit with her at breakfast, and when I asked what she was
going to speak about, she modestly remarked, “You probably know everything I’m
going to say about writing already.” Oh, puh-lease! I scribbled away
in my little notebook as she talked about “being true” in fiction. A few
takeaway points (paraphrased):

--being “true” doesn’t have anything to do about fact
--she compared good writing to an experience she had of looking at a comet: you can see the comet not by looking at it directly but in your peripheral vision; in writing, you can’t speak directly of those strong emotions like love-hate-rage directly because the minute you do, you lose sight of them
--Her brilliant and succinct exploration of Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” was a stunning revelation of the power of small details to create characterization
--on dialogue, she noted that when writing an argument, you must make sure you’re not on only one side and spoke about the immense tension of the moment where one person wants something as the other person says no
--she spoke about learning to pay attention and mentioned that she tries to sit in silence every day for 20-30 minutes, and “then my day is different”
--When asked in the Q&A why she likes to write, she simply said, “Because I’m lonesome when I don’t,” which was a bare, beautiful truth that resonated in the room
--Finally, when asked about the dilemma of untangling the unconscious in writing (and life), again, the simplest words were the most powerful” “I always trust it.”

--I also enjoyed Susan Tekulve’s craft lecture: “Are There Too Many Trees in My Story?: How to Harness the Forces of Nature in Your Narrative.” She’s definitely my kind of speaker, with a handout of thoughtfully chosen excerpts of The Grapes of Wrath, O Pioneers, and A River Runs through It, showing how natural landscapes work beyond a pretty backdrop. I also loved seeing eight nature writing tips from Thoreau. For example,
#2—Write about storms
#4—Write about the night
#8—Write about the natural world that you observe while doing a variety of activities (i.e. ants on the patio at the coffee shop; what’s going on out the window at a boring meeting)

--My co-teacher Marlin (Bart) Barton talked about various options in writing endings of short stories:
1—A character changes
2—If a character doesn’t change, there can be an illumination for the reader
3—Epiphany (he shook things up here by quoting from Charles Baxter’s essay, “Against Epiphanies,” found in Burning Down the House, a collection of Baxter's writing essays)
It was an excellent talk, and I loved the way he opened, by noting that a story’s ending begins with its first line; the first line is already beginning to dictate what the story’s ending will be.

--I spent one session of our fiction workshop leading a collage exercise that resulted in some amazing—and amazingly noticeable—writing breakthroughs for several students. (You can read more about my collage process here.) I was very proud of the class, too, for giving the process a fair a try, though they were dubious at first—which I saw very clearly on their faces around the table at first, the almost-visible thought bubbles: “this is ridiculous, this is too touchy-feely, what a waste of time.”

More, more, more—but this is enough for now. Fabulous and inspiring and exhausting and thought-provoking and just a touch gossipy…exactly what you’d want from an MFA residency! (Remember, the application deadline is February 15…maybe I’ll see YOU in South Carolina in June.)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Sun Reading at AWP

In case you don’t remember my mentioning how much I love The Sun magazine, let me remind you that it’s one of my absolute faves: I devour it when it comes in the mail each month. So how exciting is this that I will be joining other Sun writers and editors in a reading during the AWP Conference in Washington, DC? Let me tell you: VERY exciting!

Saturday, February 5, 2011
7:30 -8:30 PM

Go Mama Go!
1809 14th St NW
(between S St & Swann St)
Washington, DC 20009
(U Street metro station)

I’ll get more info on the other readers soon—and this reading is open to all, whether you’re registered for AWP or not. Please come join us if you can.

Job in Richmond: Exec Director of James River Writers

From the James Rivers Writers’ newsletter:

JRW seeks executive director

Description of Organization: James River Writers (JRW), is a Richmond, Virginia, based non-profit organization that aims to build community by connecting and inspiring writers and readers in central Virginia. Founded in 2002, JRW now has close to 400 members. The organization's priorities include bolstering its infrastructure, programs, national reputation, and increasing outreach to youth and underserved segments of the community.

Description of Job: A new position, the JRW Executive Director will lead the implementation of JRW's strategic plan, work closely with the JRW Board, supervise a small part-time administrative staff, oversee program implementation and evaluation, and serve as an ambassador to other arts organizations, media outlets, and the larger community. Good communication, administration, fundraising, and organizational skills are a must.

Skills Needed: Candidates should have 3-5 years experience in: 1.) fund development, donor relations and cultivation, 2.) communicating and working well with an active Board and membership, 3.) sustaining a membership organization, 4.) managing and motivating volunteers and staff, and 5.) assisting a nonprofit board of directors to carry out their fiduciary responsibilities.

Salary and Benefits: Salary is $30,000 per year. For further information, or to apply with a cover letter, résumé, and three references, email no later than January 24, 2011.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Guide to Low-Residency MFA Programs Available

I love teaching in a low-residency MFA program (Converse College) and can see that the mix of community/workshops and focused individual attention can reap powerful results. If you’re curious about these sorts of writing programs, you may want to check out this helpful new book: The Low-Residency MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Creative Writing Students (Continuum Books) by Lori A. May.

The website wouldn’t let me cut-and-paste the blurb about the book, but you can read more here. The book is available everywhere from indie booksellers to Borders and B&N, or you can order from Amazon or Continuum Books.

For more about Lori A. May, please go to her website:

Disclosure: I was quoted in the book, talking about Converse College.

Jack Kent Cooke Foundation to Award $50K to Fine Arts Students

It’s not often that my sports interests meet my literary interests, but here’s a scholarship for artsy undergrads going to graduate school, sponsored by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which is—I assume—related in some way to the family money that once owned the Washington Redskins. Go, Skins—and go, writers!

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has launched a new scholarship program to help cultivate the next generation of great artists and writers with the establishment of the Jack Kent Cooke Graduate Arts Award. The new award, worth up to $50,000 per year, will recognize and reward the most promising up-and-coming artists and writers from lower-income backgrounds.

The Graduate Arts Award will enable ten students with artistic and creative merit and outstanding academic achievement to pursue a graduate degree in the fine arts, performing arts, or creative writing. The award will provide funding for tuition, room and board, required fees, and books, and is renewable for up to three years.

Students eligible for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Graduate Arts Award must be nominated by their undergraduate institution by mid-February 2011. For additional information, a list of faculty representatives, and eligibility requirements, please visit:

Monday, January 10, 2011

What the World Needs: Gatsby in 3-D

Just saw in Publisher's Lunch that the new Gatsby movie might be shot in 3D. Seriously. Here's more info, if you can stand it:

You Can Go Home Again

I’m back from another fabulous residency for the Converse College Low-Residency MFA Program, and will have just a few comments right now, since the minute I walked in the door last night, I launched myself into the Packers-Eagles game (go, Pack, go!), followed by a martini, followed by a bad-but-satisfying episode of “Desperate Housewives,” followed by sleep…so not much unpacking got done last night. Plus, there’s the matter of that lingering Christmas tree….

Anyway, on the drive down, there was a visit to Biscuitville (of course) and a stop in Durham to enjoy a wonderful meal at Piedmont Restaurant (pork belly!).

The residency was held in Tryon, North Carolina, in a charming small hotel and conference center in the mountains: the 1906 Pine Crest Inn. F. Scott Fitzgerald was among the many famous folks who stayed there (while Zelda was treated in nearby Asheville). What a wonderful staff—always there to pour a lovely glass of wine or build a fire in the lobby—and what excellent food! The Inn is known for its gourmet restaurant, and I’m afraid I got a little too used to selecting dinner from a menu that included filet, shrimp and grits, and Carolina mountain trout. Breakfasts were equally tempting: Italian Eggs Benedict were especially memorable.

Still—it’s nice to be home again, washing dishes, making my own bed, enjoying Quaker oats oatmeal. Haha. More to come on the residency.

Friday, January 7, 2011

My Ancient Norton Anthology: e.e. cummings

While I’m away teaching at the Converse College Low-Residency MFA program (application deadline February 15!), I thought I’d post some of my favorite lines of poetry that I encountered during college—

From “since feeling is first” by e.e. cummings

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

Read the whole poem here.

Fun fact: Okay, no professor ever assigned this poem, or any by cummings. But I always liked this one anyway, so take that, snobs!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

My Ancient Norton Anthology: W.B. Yeats

While I’m away teaching at the Converse College Low-Residency MFA program (application deadline February 15!), I thought I’d post some of my favorite lines of poetry that I encountered during college—

From “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Read the whole poem here.

Fun fact: I’m beyond jealous that Joan Didion has already snapped up that last line for a title.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

My Ancient Norton Anthology: Emily Dickinson

While I’m away teaching at the Converse College Low-Residency MFA program (application deadline February 15!), I thought I’d post some of my favorite lines of poetry that I encountered during college—

From “341,” by Emily Dickinson

This is the Hour of Lead --
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow --
First -- Chill -- then Stupor -- then the letting go –

Read the whole poem here.

Fun fact: I once memorized this poem and always got screwed up on the line just before these, “A Quartz contentment, like a stone--.”

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

My Ancient Norton Anthology: T.S. Eliot

While I’m away teaching at the Converse College Low-Residency MFA program (application deadline February 15!), I thought I’d post some of my favorite lines of poetry that I encountered during college—

From “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot

For I have known them all already, known them all;
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

Read the whole poem here.

Fun fact: I remember chatting with an English PhD student who told me that he had been reading this poem every season for the past seven years and still didn’t understand it fully; I was suitably impressed and intimidated.

Monday, January 3, 2011

My Ancient Norton Anthology: Matthew Arnold

While I’m away teaching at the Converse College Low-Residency MFA program (application deadline February 15!), I thought I’d post some of my favorite lines of poetry that I encountered during college—Norton Anthology, anyone? I’m sure you’ll recognize these poems...perhaps you’ll be inspired to reread some of your old favorites, too. (Fun fact: this edition of the Norton Anthology, purchased my freshman year, cost $9.95!)

From “Dover Beach,” by Matthew Arnold

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Read the whole poem here.

Fun fact: In an undergraduate creative writing class, I wrote a short story that I titled “Where Ignorant Armies Clash by Night.”


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