Thursday, March 31, 2011

Play Ball!

It's Opening Day, and I'm off to the blogging until the Nats win! 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Spring Style: Gatsby T-Shirt

Hmm…I wonder who might appreciate this shirt?
The Great Gatsby book cover t-shirt

You read more about this fabulous garment here:

And be sure to check out the line (am I pathetic if I admit that I already have The Catcher in the Rye AND Moby-Dick?)...helpful note:  the shirts run small. 
Out of Print Clothing:

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Low-Res MFA Event and Conversations & Connections Conference

Two upcoming events of note that I am involved in:

Doing a Low-Residency MFA: Pros & Cons

sponsored by AIW (American Independent Writers)

Monday, April 4, 2011
7:00 p.m.
Free for AIW members and non-members

AIW Office
Suite 701
1001 Connecticut Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20036
The street entrance is on K Street, between 17th and Connecticut, near the K Street entrance to the Farragut North Metro station.
Metro: Farragut North on the Red line, Farragut West on the Orange and Blue lines.

Get the scoop on low-residency MFA graduate programs, and see if this option is right for you!

Leslie Pietrzyk teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Converse College (located in Spartanburg, South Carolina) and in the graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins. She is the author of two novels, Pears on a Willow Tree (Avon Books) and A Year and a Day (William Morrow). Her short fiction has appeared in many journals, including Shenandoah, The Iowa Review, The Gettysburg Review, and The Sun Magazine.

Rimas Blekaitis is currently a student and MFA candidate in writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program. The VCFA program was recently ranked as the top low-residency writing program in the country by Poets and Writers magazine, and as one of the top five programs by The Atlantic magazine. He lives in Washington, D.C.


Conversations and Connections Literary Conference
Saturday, April 16, 2011
Johns Hopkins University Advanced Writing Program campus, Washington, DC
1717 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
one block from the Dupont Circle (Red line) Metro station’s south entrance.

$65 for full day

My panel:
Debut Writers and How They Got There
Panel discussion: Dylan Landis, Eric Goodman, Janice Shapiro, Robin Black,
Moderated by Leslie Pietrzyk
People who have a first book coming out, or just had one, and how they got from slamming their head against the wall to first book out.

Lots more at this great conference!  Registration/information:

Monday, March 28, 2011

Victor LaValle on Narrative Voice

This interview with Victor LaValle is one of the best explorations of voice that I’ve come across. It’s longish, but you must read it:

Here are some excerpts if you don’t believe me:

“My definition of “voice” is personality. And since everyone has one (just about everyone) then everyone has a Voice. A lot of times, when I’m teaching, students will discuss voice as if it were just another craft issue. “In this story I want the voice to be a 90 year old woman’s.” Or, “I want to use the voice of a tough cop.” I understand what they’re saying, they want to see how different characters sound, but that’s not the same as voice. As far as I’m concerned, each of us is born and raised with only one writer’s Voice, and no amount of camouflage is ever going to disguise that.

“…this leads back to the idea of writing as a quest for self-awareness through the telling of some kick-ass stories. When you think of it that way you might see why I say voice is simply personality. There’s nothing simple about it, but the person you are (in total, at that moment in time) is what creates the story you’re writing. It’s infused in every piece of punctuation, in the plot, in the most minor character who crosses the page. It’s all your voice.

“But when I read people who have mastery over their voice I always find (always) that when I meet them or hear them speak I can detect the same essence that I discovered on the page. It must be like when a grade school teacher has parent conferences and finally gets to meet the mother and/or father of the child they’ve been dealing with all year. The parent walks in the room and almost instantly the teacher says, Ah yes, of course you’re her parents. For me, that’s when you know your narrative voice is successful. When it’s undeniably, recognizably yours. Even in the dead of winter, covered head to toe in a snow suit and a scarf, you can stand at the edge of the playground and say, That one, right there. That’s my kid.

“So really I think Voice comes down to fear or lack thereof. If the author has parts of him or herself that are considered off limits, that can’t be indulged or addressed (or parts of those people he or she has known) then I think it comes across on the page and the words seem tame, even comatose. Even if the story is compelling, the lines lack courage. I’m not really talking about beauty or poetry here, but blood.

“In that way I think I actually can say exactly what it is that has made people compliment my use of Voice. At some point during that compliment they usually will say things like, I can’t believe you admitted that. I can’t believe you let the character say that or do that. So Voice seems tied to surprise, which is the single great quality that all living things share. All living things will surprise you. But with writing, it’s very easy to get rid of surprises. You can edit them from the page. Or, more common, you can edit yourself even before you put the words on the page.”


And yes, there’s more…as I said, a very smart discussion! And after reading that interview, you should do yourself another huge favor and buy one of his books—which will contain its own lessons about voice. Still not convinced? Read more about Victor LaValle here. And jump if you ever have the chance to hear him read from and discuss his work: I’m pretty sure anyone in the audience on Friday night at the PEN/Faulkner reading would agree with me. Off to go start a Victor Lavelle fan club…haha, sort of.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Guest in Progress: Julie Wakeman-Linn on Creating a Writing Life in Africa

The dynamic and fabulous Julie Wakeman-Linn has guest blogged before—about creating her own writing retreat and her life as editor of The Potomac Review—so clearly she’s always up to interesting things…and today’s post may top them all in terms of “interesting things.” Julie is on leave, in Tanzania, figuring out how a Type A, workaholic DC writer who’s used to packing 30 hours into a day can, well, do nothing but write:

The Indian Ocean is blue and aqua green, the horizon empty of clouds. My view is framed by palm trees, papaya trees and flame trees. Here in Dar Es Salaam, I have taken over a second floor bedroom as my den so I can watch the waves or sit on the balcony right outside when I want an ocean breeze.

I, Julie Wakeman-Linn, professor of English at Montgomery College, program co-chair of two different writing conferences, Editor in chief of the Potomac Review, am on leave. Free from classes, committee meetings, the slush pile, the key element of my life to be managed is me. I’m used to being busy all the time, but now each day stretches out, mostly open. Every writer thinks she or he wants this situation, but how can she ensure it will be a productive time and not just a long vacation in a beautiful place?

Last week, Leslie was at VCCA, a magical place, but most people are in residence for one- two -three weeks; I face seventy eight weeks. Like most writers I have a list of projects that runs to two single spaced pages, so material to work with is not the issue. My list includes minor things like finish the second novel, revise the first novel, write the brand new prairie novel as well as writing new stories that arise from this wild existence here in Tanzania. So it isn’t inspiration that is required, but two other personality traits: discipline and adjustment.

Adjustment seems to be hardest: How to settle into household, social, and writing routines so I really use these eighteen months. Here I have a housekeeper, Devota, and two gardeners, Humphrey and Joseph, who came along with this beautiful furnished house, so I’m free from drudgery. My key task is to become accustomed to people around me all day; I’ve had to get over the guilt of someone else “working” while I sit at a computer screen. I’m told Devota’s salary places her securely in Tanzanian middle class and that economic fact helps dilute my Irish Catholic Midwestern guilt. Better yet-- Devota has come to understand that if I’m sitting at the desk with my back to the door, I don’t want to talk. She moves around the house as quietly as the emerald green geckos.

I chat with the gardeners in their indifferent English trying to use my budding Swahili. Mostly we just smile and laugh at each other once or twice day.

The social adjustment has been trickier; I’m a workaholic, and in a third world/expatriate society there are dozens of volunteer opportunities. Help run the United Nations Spouse group fundraising ball, volunteer at the High school for orphan girls, start teaching a writing group, connect with the guy who wants to create a literary magazine. A wise woman here said “don’t volunteer for anything for six months.” I should only observe until I know what is the best activity for me, but I don’t just sit very well.

The flip side of the coin is missing my network in Maryland, a lively supportive group of writers, faculty members and friends. Here I don’t know anybody yet because I’m not plugged into volunteering, clubs, and fundraisers. I have to have patience to take time to meet people here while realizing they are never going to replace the most special people in my writing life. I have to balance my needs for socializing against my writing time.

An odd coincidence that has really helped is talking to other “tag along spouses” who, like me, left careers behind or on hold. Their sympathy and advice on how to adapt to a suddenly wide open schedule has helped me relax about playing bridge in the daytime which feels so decadent.

My next adjustment is the writing routine. Like many writers, I’m best when I am on a ferocious deadline, preferably externally imposed like a contest. I’m lining up lots of those deadlines, but I can’t fill all the weeks and months with them; I’ll go broke from contest fees. Instead of relying on external pressure, I divide up my day into chunks for different types of writing and those random errands like buying groceries. I use the sunlight to help me focus.

At this latitude, dawn is always right around 6 a.m. After some journaling with the creamy sunrise, I have breakfast and send off that hard working spouse to his office. In the morning, I work on a defined task: either a timed writing or a specific new scene. I like to write new rough drafts before 10 am when it starts to get hot. Sometimes I pace the balcony or write outside with the birds and the geckos. Midmorning, I’ll have a nibble if I skipped breakfast or a little bit of exercise like a quick dip in the pool. Next I’ll dig into a part of a big project that requires a steady hand and an open mind like revision of a chapter. For a break I’ll run an errand, have lunch and nap with some reading. I keep my “out of the den” errands, volunteering and shopping, bunched to the afternoon whenever possible. The late afternoon, as the sun heads towards the western horizon, is the time for the most loving, careful, sentence by sentence drafting. Or on bad days, I do marketing.

If my spouse is running late, as he often is, I pick up an engaging novel to read or a difficult writing task, like in-between scenes in a mostly done story, but it must be a task that completely absorbs my attention so I don’t think about waiting for him.

Contrary to human nature, discipline hasn’t been a problem for me. I would give credit to several factors. First once I’ve begun the day writing, I can continue. Yesterday I sat at 6:58 pm, working on this guest blog, when in Maryland I never wrote new material after twelve noon.

Because I have so much free time, day by day and week by week, I both play and work more easily. I am a hopeless keeper of lists and I list my writing projects and revisit and reorder those lists regularly. It doesn’t matter which project I am working on as long as I am working.
The second discipline factor comes from examples of friends and writers who have done this successfully. My pal Susi Wyss took time off from her job to just write and her beautiful collection The Civilized World, comes out this month( ). My first time in Africa I was much younger and running the social scene for the American Canadian Women’s Club, but two women I knew stepped away to do art. They were lovely, friendly, but always busy in their mornings. I understand them now.

The final factor is reporting to my Maryland network. I have started a blog, Gecko Tails ( In it my friends, writing pals, students and even family members get the latest fun photo from Tanzania and a brief report of what I have accomplished that week. Thanks to Susi for the idea for reporting back and to Leslie for her excellent blog as an ideal and also as motivation to write regularly on Gecko Tails. Subscribe to Gecko Tails and follow along. My photos are a great little escape to the tropics and to safaris on the Serengeti.

A couple of tricks have helped me develop this routine. About once a week, I let myself read a whole novel in two-three days which I haven’t done in years; secondly, I tell people here in Dar es Salaam that I’m writing and I’m not really available in the morning. They seem to be respecting that request, while letting me play bridge. It helps that in the pattern of life here, Swahili Time, nobody does anything before lunch anyway except for a couple of diplomat/expat spouse group monthly meetings. Finally I have remembered to play--exercise, swim, go to the fun dinner parties, explore the wood carver’s market. Oh yes, and Skype helps.

About ten weeks into the eighteen months, I can report the following: two stories finished and polished and submitted, two new stories started from raw material, another old story retrieved, repaired and submitted and finally pages of notes on this environment.

A final note, the world seems very far away. The submission game is electronic and disembodied. Last year I had a writer’s escape for three weeks in France; I got two very quick acceptances in under a week. Here I had a rejection in under a week, but it didn’t bug me. I had to pinch myself over the personalized rejection from a big mag because it also didn’t seem real. I hope my first Indian Ocean side acceptance comes soon, so the good news won’t distract me either. ~~Julie Wakeman-Linn

About: Julie Wakeman-Linn, Potomac Review editor-in-chief, is on leave in Africa. Her short stories appeared last year in Rosebud, A Prairie Journal, Santa Clara Review, and Gray Sparrow Review. Gray Sparrow nominated "Brothers Killing Brothers" for a Pushcart. Currently, she blogs at, and volunteers to teach creative writing to a class of orphan girls at Bethsaida High School in Dar es Salaam. Her website is

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Few Random Writing-Related Thoughts Leftover from VCCA

Because of the physical set-up of my studio—and, okay, because I wear reading glasses—for the first time I increased the size of my “view” in Word, ending up with a giant white page and giant letters. (An increase to 120% makes a big difference.) That helped my eyes, but what was really remarkable is that I truly think that the visual difference tricked my brain into loosening up and not going all harsh, psycho-editor on me (you know, that murmur of, this sucks). I was working almost totally on very rough drafts—each of them a story that I had not remotely been thinking about writing or that had any sense of a plan—and seeing the words look so surprising and different on the screen added to the novelty and sense of possibility. This wasn’t “the same old stuff.”

I also wrote in single-space, and will also swear that that made a huge difference.

Could it be that the whole trick to writing is to switch fonts and sizes? How come I haven’t read this secret in a craft book?


I was working on several stories, each with several characters, and—truly—it became exhausting to think up the right names for everybody and to give them all jobs. (An advantage to the novel: once you set everyone up, you’re good to go.) It seems as though those tiny details may not matter, and that it would always be easy to change them later. And, yes, for a while you can call someone XX until you get to the right name. But that’s cumbersome and becomes alphabet soup when you’re writing lines like “XX looked at YY and said, ‘I’m worried about ZZ.’”

Anyway, these details are important. A woman named Patricia sends a different vibe than a woman named Esther. I like to figure out what year my character was born and glance through the popular names of that year for ideas:
(This site was especially helpful last year when I was working on my novel set in 1900, since the list of names goes back to 1879.)

As for jobs, they don’t define a person, but they help us understand who a character is. A lawyer is different than a schoolteacher who is different than a woman who manages a 7-11. Knowing what someone does, also allows the writer to fill in the props: what kind of car does the lawyer have? What does the schoolteacher have in her purse? It drives me crazy when I read stories where everyone seems to have no job whatsoever. Isn’t that how we spend most of our time, working? Isn’t that one fact going to immeasurably impact who we are?

Now I’m pleased to trot out—probably for the billionth time—one of my favorite quotations from John Gardener, from The Art of Fiction:

“As in the universe every atom has an effect, however miniscule, on every other atom, so that to pinch the fabric of Time and Space at any point is to shake the whole length and breadth of it, so in fiction every element has effect on every other, so that to change a character’s name from Jane to Cynthia is to make the fictional ground shudder under her feet.”

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Ten Days at VCCA

I had another excellent stay at VCCA. For those of you who know the place, my studio was W6 (again!), which is right by the drive where the visual artists load/unload their cars (not that I’m nosy), and I had bedroom #3, which meant that I had my OWN bathroom, though it was quite—and I do mean quite—tiny. Still, no sharing, and that is worth a lot.

I had all sorts of plans in mind about what I was going to work on—seriously, for fun I typed up a list of options and there were 21 ideas that I would have been happy to tackle. I did work on a couple of these ideas, but a single, idle conversation at breakfast changed everything and sent me in a totally new direction in a very exciting way (thank you, Rachel Zucker!). I’ll pass along the comment that got me thinking, and perhaps it will inspire you. It’s not all that complicated. Rachel, a poet, was talking about a friend of hers who taught a class called something like “Writing about Subcultures.” So—I decided to write about a subculture that day. I probably don’t want to go into too many details at the moment, so suffice it say….best decision I’ve made for a long, long time.

So I got a lot of writing done, mostly rough drafts that I’ll have to spend the coming months fixing up. I think that spilling out Anne Lamott’s “shitty drafts” really works for me in the residency situation. It’s a new environment, there’s a lot of energy—somehow new stuff seems to flow more readily than it does at boring old home. When I’ve been limited to editing and revising at VCCA, I’ve usually felt hampered.

The other important issue: The food was mostly quite good. In fact, on Saint Patrick’s Day, we had some of the most amazing corned beef ever. Honestly, second only to top-notch Jewish deli corned beef. There was a tiny fight over the last little scraps as several people (including me) raced up for seconds. And there were some burritos at lunch that technically weren’t anything fabulous, but that I’ll remember with fondness.

And I read some excellent books:

The Dry Well by Marlin Barton (short stories by my colleague at Converse College)
If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black (short stories)
Normal People Don’t Live Like This by Dylan Landis (novel in stories)

I couldn’t say enough good things about these books; everyone should read each of them. But, to be more specific, read Landis for perfect prose that will make you feel lazy as a writer for accepting less in your own work; read Black for stories of the deep complexities and moments of grace of real life; and read Barton to read deeply lived lives one small town in Alabama and if you wish Flannery O’Connor were still around writing. All three of these books were incredibly inspiring to me while I was here, and I honestly feel as though they came to me at exactly the right time.

I read some less than inspiring books that shall remain nameless. Boo!

Now it’s back to the real world—which, given the avalanche of recent bad news—I didn’t actually miss all that much. Oh, to be back at VCCA, complaining about stinkbugs!

Monday, March 21, 2011

My Ancient Life: Quotations of Note, 6

I’m off at VCCA, writing like a maniac—I hope! Okay, actually today I should be driving home, unless I can't tear myself away.

Here's the last installment of some of my favorite “inspirational” quotations that I hand-copied into a notebook, using my very neatest handwriting, while I was in high school, and spilling into the early years of college.

“Search out both beauty and its opposite, and definition, learn to know and to see them. Otherwise your conception of beauty will be incomplete, saccharine, prettified, sentimental.”
~Konstantin Stanislavsky

“He (the writer) must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”
~William Faulkner
speech 1950

Friday, March 18, 2011

My Ancient Life: Quotations of Note, 5

I’m off at VCCA, writing like a maniac—I hope! I may post about what’s going on there, and I may not. In case of the latter, I’m leaving behind some of my favorite “inspirational” quotations that I hand-copied into a notebook, using my very neatest handwriting, while I was in high school, and spilling into the early years of college. Several grandiose themes will probably emerge….

“It is not wise to violate the rules until you know how to observe them.”
~T.S. Eliot

“Talent is helpful in writing, but guts are an absolute necessity.”
~Jessamyn West

Thursday, March 17, 2011

My Ancient Life: Quotations of Note, 4

I’m off at VCCA, writing like a maniac—I hope! I may post about what’s going on there, and I may not. In case of the latter, I’m leaving behind some of my favorite “inspirational” quotations that I hand-copied into a notebook, using my very neatest handwriting, while I was in high school, and spilling into the early years of college. Several grandiose themes will probably emerge….

“Writers don’t care what they eat. They just care what you think of them.”
~Louise Fitzhugh
Harriet the Spy

“And I don’t want any cracks about her job. Goddammit [sic], she’s trying. She’s got ambition, and when you lost that, baby, you’ve really cashed in your chips.”
~Jacqueline Susann
Once is Not Enough
Mike Wayne

[Hey, a girl does not live on Fitzgerald & Salinger alone!]

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

My Ancient Life: Quotations of Note, 3

I’m off at VCCA, writing like a maniac—I hope! I may post about what’s going on there, and I may not. In case of the latter, I’m leaving behind some of my favorite “inspirational” quotations that I hand-copied into a notebook, using my very neatest handwriting, while I was in high school, and spilling into the early years of college. Several grandiose themes will probably emerge….

“I’m as restless as the devil and have a horror of getting fat or falling in love and growing domestic.”
~F. Scott Fitzgerald
This Side of Paradise

“Every author ought to write every book as if he were going to be beheaded the day he finished it.”
~F. Scott Fitzgerald
This Side of Paradise

[There are about a dozen more from this book...which I don't think I've read since then.]

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

My Ancient Life: Quotations of Note, 2

I’m off at VCCA, writing like a maniac—I hope! I may post about what’s going on there, and I may not. In case of the latter, I’m leaving behind some of my favorite “inspirational” quotations that I hand-copied into a notebook, using my very neatest handwriting, while I was in high school, and spilling into the early years of college.

“An artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s.”
~J.D. Salinger
Franny and Zooey

“The willingness to risk excess on behalf of one’s obsessions is what distinguishes artists from entertainers.”
~John Updike
On J.D. Salinger’s Seymour

Monday, March 14, 2011

My Ancient Life: Quotations of Note, 1

I’m off at VCCA, writing like a maniac—I hope! I may post about what’s going on there, and I may not. In case of the latter, I’m leaving behind some of my favorite “inspirational” quotations that I hand-copied into a notebook, using my very neatest handwriting, while I was in high school, and spilling into the early years of college. Several grandiose themes will probably emerge….

(If you think this is worrisome, be relieved that I’m not posting any of my high school poems!)

As for the attributions, I’ll remind you that high school girls and young college students often have their own ideas of attribution. So blame that girl from long ago for any errors and sloppiness.

“Obviously no poet of such fierce perception can tidily put his life away when he is not writing. The poet lives the truth he has to write….”
~Alfred Kazin
“The Posthumous Life of Dylan Thomas”

“The mind of an artist must be like the sea, so vast that the boundaries are invisible, so clear that the stars are reflected to the very bottom.”
~Gustave Flaubert
Letter to Louise Colet

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Work in Progress: Off to VCCA!

I’ve been eagerly anticipating my spring break trip this year: to VCCA (Virginia Center for Creative Arts), where I plan to work on about a thousand different projects, finishing them all (haha). But who knows…I find it amazing to see how much creative work can be accomplished when one is freed of the drudgery of grocery shopping, laundry, taking out the garbage, etc. And though I love to cook, there is something SO NICE about just showing up for dinner, eating it, and walking away from those dirty dishes.

Blogging will be light, pre-posted items (unless my 1000 projects aren’t going well and procrastination-through-blogging seems like a good idea). And don’t bother breaking into my house while I’m away as my husband is holding down the fort…along with a very large box of his favorite frozen mini franks*-in-a-blanket.

Here’s my previous post about how to pack for a colony and what to expect, and the follow-up to that post.

*Hebrew National brand and kosher, so they’re technically not “pigs” in the blanket as we called them in the midwest

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

How to Organize Your Books (No, Please, NOT on a Kindle!)

It must be something in the air: several blogs that I read have recently posted about organizing and culling their book collections, which is something I half-heartedly did a few weeks ago. By half-heartedly, I mean that as soon as I saw a couple inches of bare shelf, I stopped…and promptly and happily bought a bunch of new books.

C.M. Mayo at Madam Mayo offers very helpful suggestions and hard questions to ask yourself as you go through the process. If she weren’t such a wonderful writer, I might suggest that she go into professional organizing.

“4. Does it have serious sentimental value? Because everything may have some sentimental value, this needs to be rated on a scale of, say, 1 - 10. I have enough shelf space right now that a minimum of 5 on a scale of 1 - 10 works for me.
-->If yes, goes to appropriate shelf. If no, on to question 5.”

Read the whole piece here.

Cliff Garstang, at Perpetual Folly, offers this comforting discovery:

“For a long time I've been embarrassed by the large number of books I own that I haven't read. I read a lot, but buy more than I read because I love books. I'm currently reading The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and I was very happy to find this passage in the introduction to Part 1:

‘Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.’

So, it turns out that I have a sizable antilibrary. Yay.”

Read the rest here.

And Mark Sarvas, at The Elegant Variation, encounters a conundrum that any writer will recognize as being of vital importance:

“The unpacking of the Sarvas Library continues, slowly but pleasingly. … Along the way, though, I encountered a problem that I haven't yet sorted out to my satisfaction. I'm presently unpacking fiction only. Typically, I've kept my collection of writers' letters - another obsession of mine - in a separate section, which has always worked reasonably well. Now, I'm sort of wondering what to do about writers' biographies. I don't have nearly as many of those, but I've accumulated a few since the last time the library was on shelves. So I'm left wondering do I store my copy of Frederick Brown's Flaubert biography with the rest of my Flaubert, or do I separate the biographies as well.”

Read more here. (And be sure to read the comments...there are some very intense book organizers out there!)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Link Corral: Mary Karr, AWP Panels on Audio, Story vs. Vignette, Missouri Review Audio Competition

Memoirist Mary Karr on writing “one true sentence”:

“Specifically, I didn’t want to write about my son’s father, my ex-husband. So my first go at this book, I was about 200 hundred pages in, and I would write up to that point, and then sort of try to pole vault: “Nine years later,” and just kind of, “comma,” to try get around this thing. And the temptation then, when I first wrote about it, was to make him in a way more saintly, and me more bedraggled and slatternly. And again, this isn’t a James Frey thing where I said we were in prison and we weren’t. It’s not a Jayson Blair thing where you say you talk to people who don’t exist. It’s about motive.

“I think one reason the people I’ve written about often remain very friendly – I have one here tonight – and they don’t seem to want to sue me or they’re not mad at me, is that I really try very hard not to attribute motives to other people that I cannot guarantee, unless somebody has told me, “This is my motive.” I really try often not even to speculate. So what was hardest for me in writing about my husband wasn’t the terrible moments between us, which all of you know who have had terrible moments with anybody. You usually remember the most horrible thing they said, and in some ways it’s always unfair, because it’s always out of context. It’s usually that they were richly provoked.

“I could have started the memoir, “It all started when he hit me back.” But I think when people read the book, and I’m thinking of running over my husband when he moves in the garbage cans, I don’t think people assume that’s an accurate assessment of who he is. I think it’s pretty clear who the asshole is.”

Read the rest here:
(Thanks for the link, Andrea!)


The CLMP (Council of Literary Magazines and Presses) is offering a collection of audio recordings from recent events, in case you weren't able to attend or would like to hear something again. Included are: select CLMP panels and workshops from AWP 2011, panels from our Fall 2010 Literary Writers Conference, and our Periodically Speaking series at the New York Public Library. To listen to any of the selections, simply click on a title here.


A short but effective piece by Melanie Bishop in the Glimmer Train bulletin about the difference between a true story and a vignette: “My favorite definition of a short story is also the shortest one I've ever heard: Something happens.”

Read the rest here.


From The Missouri Review:

The deadline for The Missouri Review’s Audio Competition is fast approaching, and we would love to receive your entry! Prizes will be awarded for high-quality recordings of poets and writers reading their work and for audio documentaries on any subject.

Winners in each of four categories receive $1,000, and winning entries will be featured on our website and made available to our subscribers. All entrants receive a one-year subscription to The Missouri Review.

Deadline: March 15th

Entries should be sent by mail and must include a CD or DVD, entry form, entry fee, and author bio. For full details and to download an entry form, please see our website:

And you can view a PDF copy of our contest advertisement here.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Kim Roberts to Read on 3/15

I’m distressed that I have to miss this poetry reading by the amazing Kim Roberts. It’s sponsored by Poetry Mutual, a Washington based poetry incubator that sponsors events, builds community among writers and audiences, and publishes books. Find out more at the website.

Tuesday, March 15th @ 7pm
Kim Roberts Reads at Riverby Books from her New Book
The 2009 Pearl Poetry Prize Winner will be reading from her new book of poetry, Animal Magnetism.

"In Animal Magnetism, Kim Roberts investigates, in language as rich, complex, and nuanced as the body itself, the unlit interiors of physical and emotional anatomy…While these poems are beautifully-made and sometimes funny or painful, they are also brimming with information…Here the narrator functions as a trained docent, leading the reader on a private tour of the wonders and curiosities that document the early explorations of medicine and anatomy, in which the inner workings of the human body were first opened to the human eye." —Debra Marquart

Riverby Books
Our readings are held each month at Riverby Books on Capitol Hill. This fine bookshop is at 417 East Capitol Street Southeast, three blocks from the Capitol Hill and two blocks from the Folger Shakespeare Theater. Map found here.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Guest in Progress: Catherine Keefe on Community and Connections

I ranted about the importance of saying “thank you” in the writing life here. One of the nice results of that post is that many people emailed to thank me for writing my blog (I promise that’s not why I ranted on thank yous). Another nice result is this guest post from Facebook friend and friend-of-a-real-life-friend (remember how I said that the writing world is SMALL?) Catherine Keefe, who offers her haunting and personal take on the importance of finding ways to connect.

How Hard Is It to Say Thank You? Redux
by Catherine Keefe

The hand-addressed white envelope is square, greeting card size, so it literally sticks out from the stack of business correspondence I pull from my p.o. box. Kim Sloca. I recognize the last name on the return address label. Lee Sloca is a writer, a man I never met, who contributed a poem, "Leftover Ingredients" to the first issue of dirtcakes, a literary journal I launched last June. I sent all the contributors a personal thank-you note tucked into the print journal and I smile at the thought that maybe I've created an old-fashioned pen pal.

I rip open Sloca's letter, read the gold "NOEL" and chastise myself for waiting so long to check my mail.

Ms. Catherine Keefe,
Wishing you
a wonderful Christmas
and a very
Happy New Year
Kim sloca
FOR: Lee M. SLoca

P.S. My son, Lee M. SLoca passed away quietly at home June 2010. Thank you for your kind words toward Lee. I'm creating an album about Lee. If you can please wrote about Lee and send it to me I would appreciated!

I reread the card once, twice, then a third time. His mother must have received my note, seen her son's words in print, within days after he passed. I sigh, then touch her card to my cheek. A mother's sorrow accompanies the mail on my short drive home. When I arrive, I immediately pull out my copy of the journal and search through contributor photos to see if I can discern any clue as to what might have killed the man. Is he old? Ashen? Do his eyes portend imminent demise?

Damn! It had been my cockamamie idea to enhance "The Hunger Issue" theme by cropping photos of our writers to reveal only hands or mouths.

Lee's lips are full, beautiful really. Silent. They are closed, barely; it seems as if he's about to speak and that his voice might be soft. His bio says he worked for Obama's campaign and now is "seeking work compatible with the President's philosophy of community."

I reread his poem and marvel again at the images he wove together.

LEFTOVER INGREDIENTS: gelatin of a sunset, 2 sugarless Vietnamese ladies, with artificial flavors of dehydrated husbands, saltlick of a past war...

I really, really, really wish I'd had a conversation with him about that poem, rather than an e-mail correspondence beginning with praise and congratulations, then devolving into necessary permissions and deadlines and a silly photo request.

I also have a "philosophy of community." The desire to create a circle dedicated to words and art is a prime motivation for editing dirtcakes. The light I turn toward each time I open the mail - either electronic or paper - is the faith that I'll find another human who eloquently offers a world vision where similarities are more pronounced than differences. My writers become part of an imaginary table around which I dream of breaking bread, discussing world issues, and laughing not a little. But ultimately I, like most who practice the craft of translating life into letters, find the warmth of community mostly imagined, as writing is a solitary pursuit, which culminates in a mute paper artifact.

As an antidote to a certain type of isolation, I suggested in the editor's letter of "The Hunger Issue" that "when you're finished reading, invite someone over to share dinner."

Aloneness is something Lee Sloca also wrote about:

"...confectioner's glaze of friendship, to modify the starch of emptiness..."

Maybe I'll take my own advice and answer Kim Sloca's Christmas card with an invitation. Google Maps tells me she lives only 64.6 miles away.

I'll bake a cake. I'll ask her what flavor glaze Lee might have liked. And then we'll have our fill talking of emptiness.

You can read Lee Sloca’s poem here:

About: Catherine Keefe is a writer, editor, and writing instructor. You can read more about dirtcakes at

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Ripken, Dubus, Vowell, Richard, Obreht at Politics & Prose

Politics & Prose Bookstore has some excellent writers lined up for visits in the coming weeks…these are all can't-miss, though I'll have to miss a few:

Monday, March 14: Cal Ripken, Jr.
Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend this event featuring my good friend (okay, acquaintance…or perhaps more like my celebrity stalkee). Normally I object bitterly to celebrity children’s books, but Cal can do no wrong, and I’m sure Hothead, about a young all-star shortstop with anger management issues, is absolutely fabulous.

Monday, March 21: Andre Dubus III
I just bought a copy of his new memoir, Townie, about growing up as a “townie” in Massachusetts. Here’s the New York Times review, and he sounded very smart on the Diane Rehm show, and I liked his novel, House of Sand and Fog.

Saturday, March 26: Sarah Vowell
I don’t think I’m all that interested in her new book, Unfamiliar Fishes, about the history of Hawaii, but this woman can make absolutely anything interesting. I’ve been sort of in love with her mind (and her crazy voice) way from old-time “This American Life” days when she talked about building a cannon with her father.

Sunday, March 27: Mark Richard
Author of one of my favorite short stories ever (“Strays”), I met him at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and he was a compelling reader, writer, and teacher. I can still hear him advising us to “swing for the fences” in our writing because we were writing for time. And his memoir, House of Prayer No. 2—told in the second person—sounds innovative.

Monday, March 28: Tea Obreht
Author of The Tiger’s Wife, a section of which appeared in The New Yorker and which kept me enthralled on a tedious metro ride. I wasn’t crazy about her work in the latest Best American Short Stories, but based on that New Yorker excerpt, I’m very interested in this book.

For more information:
Politics & Prose Bookstore
5015 Connecticut Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20008

Disclosure per the FTC overlords: No one paid me anything and nothing came free...though if Cal wants to swing a few baseball tickets my way, he should feel free to look me up.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Arnost Lustig, Writing Teacher

One of my first writing teachers died: Arnost Lustig.

From the obituary in the Washington Post:

“Arnost Lustig, a Czech-born fiction writer who drew on his experience as the survivor of three concentration camps to create unsentimental portrayals of life during the Holocaust, died Feb. 26 of cancer in Prague. He was 84.

“Mr. Lustig, a retired professor of literature at American University, had written more than a dozen novels and short story collections since the late 1950s. He won acclaim for his finely rendered portraits of people who confront terrible choices - and manage to commit tiny acts of great heroism - during the most horrific of times.”

What I mostly remember about his fiction workshop is that he made us read Aristotle’s Poetics, which I thought was horribly old-fashioned and odd. (Though, later, when I read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, which draws upon Aristotle, the material suddenly all seemed so important and relevant.)

And Arnost gave us assignments like “write the saddest story” or “write the most beautiful thing you know.” I’m not sure I ever came up with something sad enough to impress him (how can one convey sadness to a Holocaust survivor?), but I do think that perhaps I passed one test he put me through, and—as with so much from that class and that time—one that I didn’t realize the significance of until much later.

There was a boy in the class with whom I had a not-very-secret flirtation. He read his “sad” or “beautiful” story out loud for critique, and—obviously—it wasn’t very good; it definitely needed some work. This boy—like all the boys who caught my eye during this time—was confident, bordering on arrogant, if not tipping into being a fully arrogant you-know-what. Right after he finished reading the story, Arnost looked straight and hard at me and asked what I thought of the story.

Was I supposed to choose the flirty boy, and tell him how great and wonderful his story was? Or choose Truth in the service of creating Art—telling him why the story wasn’t working?

The boy smiled his smarmy smile at me.

I chose art. I think Arnost knew I would and that’s why he asked.

And here, underlined in my old copy of Poetics, is Aristotle on tragedy, and my God! It’s exactly right:

“Tragedy, then, is a process of imitating an action which has serious implications, is complete, and possesses magnitude; by means of language which has been made sensuously attractive, with each of its varieties found separately in the parts; enacted by the persons themselves and not presented through narrative; through a course of pity and fear completing the purification of tragic acts which have those emotional characteristics.”


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