Thursday, March 29, 2012

Conversations & Connections Conference in DC, 4/21...Register Now!

I’m pleased to announce that I will be participating in the 2012 Conversations & Connections 1-day writers' conference in Washington next month.  I’ve loved this conference from the beginning, and it’s only gotten bigger and better—while still keeping costs down for participants.  Here’s the general information, followed by information about my panel…which is right up my alley, all about keeping connections going in the DC literary scene.

Oh, yeah—this one always sells out fast, so don’t dither too long.

APRIL 21, 2012
1740 Massachusetts Avenue
Dupont Circle, Washington

Conversations and Connections is not the same old writer’s conference.
Get the real scoop directly from the people who are making decisions about publishing every day. Conversations and Connections features editors from a mix of established and cutting-edge literary magazines and small presses, all of whom will be there to help you take the next step in publishing your work.

Face to face.
Conversations and Connections provides a comfortable, congenial environment where you can meet other writers, as well as editors and publishers. Our “speed dating with the editors” (one session is included in the registration fee, additional sessions available for $5) is a ten-minute meeting with an editor who will review the first two pages of a story, a novel synopsis, or a few poems, providing feedback on how you might improve your work or where you might consider sending it.

Something for everyone.
Our participants know the current markets. Whether you’re an experienced writer looking to take the next step, a newcomer looking for the coolest small presses, or anybody else sending your writing out into the world, Conversations and Connections has a panel you need to hear and an editor you need to meet. This year, we’ve updated our format to include more craft lectures and other advanced topics.

It’s Cheap! And You’ll Actually Leave with Stuff.
For a registration fee of only $65 (same as last year), you get the full-day conference, one ticket to “speed dating with the editors,” a subscription to a participating literary magazine, and a book from one of our speakers.

My panel:
From Here: Your Guide to Readings, Workshops, Magazines, and Presses in the DC Area: So you’ve come to this great conference and met these wonderful people but now you have to go home. How can you keep the energy up? How can you keep honing your craft? How can you get more involved in the literary community? Our panelists will provide a map to the literary landscape, detailing the resources and opportunities available in the DC area. Barrelhouse Poetry Editor Dan Brady leads this panel discussion, with novelist Leslie Pietrzyk, CityLit’s Gregg Wilhelm, and Andre Perry from the Mission Creek Festival.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


What could be a more natural culmination of my obsession with The Great Gatsby than to travel to New York to see a production of Gatz, the six-and-a-half hour performance in which an office drone reads aloud the entire text of The Great Gatsby as office co-workers join in, transforming themselves into the characters?  (Here’s a review of the original production.)

Maybe I’m crazy, but I CAN’T WAIT!!

If you’re also crazy, here’s where to get tickets.

Lucky me to be married to a guy who early on wooed me by leaving me this message at my office:  “I’ll meet you on the corner.  I’ll be the man smoking two cigarettes.”  (Daisy, chapter seven)  

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

VCCA: A Heartfelt Thank You

One of the joys of being at an artists’ colony is meeting and being inspired by other working artists in a variety of fields.  This list could be much longer—and I could write pages about how amazing each of these people is and the impact they had on me and my work while I was at VCCA—but I’ll keep it brief, and urge you to check out their art: 

Deborah A. Rockman is a visual artist, juxtaposing drawn images overlaid on photographs, with unsettling and unforgettable results.  You can view her portfolios at her website.  I cannot resist adding as a personal note that she is the world’s biggest advocate for the great state of Michigan!

Christopher Preissing is a composer and sound artist who created a wonderful installation in a repurposed silo on the grounds of VCCA; he combined words from a music theory text with sounds recorded while in residence—frogs, trains, the bees outside my studio.  Listening in the dark room as sounds ricocheted above us, I felt as though I’d not been paying close enough attention to the rich reverberations of the world around us.  You can listen to his work on his website.

Amy Hoffman is a memorist, at work on her first novel.  Her new book will be coming out next spring.  Lies About My Family is about the stories tell about themselves over and over, what’s underneath them, what’s missing from them.  You can listen to her read a chapter of her book at her website.

Coleman Hough is a filmmaker who is at work on a memoir.  Among other projects, she has written two movies, Full Frontal and Bubbles, both directed by Stephen Soderbergh—soon to be at the top of my Netflix queue.  You can see a trailer for Full Frontal  here.

Michelle Boisseau is a poet, author of five books:

Childhood is a nicked black trunk
you move when you move, from attics
to basements, storage shed, crawl space,
walk-in closet….

Read the rest of this powerful poem at her website.

The creative life is—for me—the only life worth living, but it can be lonely at times, and discouraging.  It’s sometimes difficult to keep up one’s spirits...until you meet those others who are making their way along the same path.  Thank you to VCCA for creating such an incredible environment for artists of all types and at varying points in their careers, and thank you to these artists and the many I’ve met who help ease the loneliness and lift the spirits—and just plain know how to have a rocking good time!

P.S.  If you’d like to come to VCCA and experience its magic yourself, the next application deadline is May 15.  Details at the website:

Sunday, March 25, 2012

VCCA: Random, #4

So sad to say goodbye to the cozy little VCCA corncrib tomorrow morning.  I got some excellent work done here:  I focused on new material for the bulk of my stay, and spit out a bunch of story drafts.  Interesting to note that as I started revising during the last couple of days, I was reminded of how hard writing is:  Which is better in the sentence, “quick” or “fast”?  What about “hurried”? Comma or semi-colon?  What’s with all these characters constantly shrugging…surely there are better gestures than that? 

Sometimes a period of simply writing whatever strikes your fancy is helpful, just slapping words on paper and figuring you’ll fix them when you get around to it.  I’m eager to let these drafts marinate a bit and return to them with a fresh eye.  Watch out, New Yorker!

If you’re in Lynchburg and are looking for an excellent meal, I recommend Dish, in the downtown area.  One of the specials on the night I was there was a grilled sausage with a butter-cream sauce!  Lest you think that might be unhealthy, note that it was served on delightfully crisp green beans.

I always forget how much I enjoy writing at night, which I have a chance to do here.  I need to make a point to rearrange my real life from time to time so I can do so.

And, yes, I’ve rearranged my date with the fabulous Don Draper to spend an extra day here, surrounded by horses, carpenter bees, grassy meadows, mountains, frogs, the striped salamander that lives under my doormat, and words.  Oh, and of course, the unofficial Spring VCCA mascot:  the stinkbug.

Homeward bound tomorrow—I mean, after a quick stop at Biscuitville.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

VCCA: Random, #3

Evidence that I am a shallower person than I thought:

#1:  I’m getting faintly depressed by having gone so long without getting to wear cute shoes (though my rain boots are a different kind of cute).  I miss cute shoes that add two inches to my height; in fact, today I wore my hideous, awful (hidiful?) errand clogs just because they make me two inches taller. 

#2:  I’m considering leaving one day early so I can be at home to watch the season premiere of “Mad Men.”  I hear Don Draper calling me, rattling the ice in his old-fashioned glass….  I mean, it’s only one day, and it’s not like I’m going to write War and Peace in this one day, is it?  Still, the gift of time and space is so precious that I continue to feel immense guilt for even entertaining this notion of missing one day.  We’ll see who wins out…the devil that is Don Draper or my guilt.  (Guilt is always my great motivator, so I think we know.)

#3:  I wish I’d remembered to bring my perfume.

#4:  I have thought about secretly watching two hours worth of “Project Runway” in my studio.

One scrap of evidence that maybe I am a deep thinker:

“That summer the boy was alone on the farm except for his parents.  His brother was working at Orullian’s Grocery in town, and there was no one to run the trap line with or swim with in the dark, weed-smelling reservoir where garter snakes made straight rapid lines in the water and the skaters rowed close to shore.  So every excursion was an adventure, even if it was only a trip across the three miles of prairie to Larsen’s to get mail or groceries.  He was excited at the visit to Garfield’s as he was excited by everything unusual.  The hot midsummer afternoon was still and breathless, the air harder to breathe than usual.  He knew there was a change in weather coming because the gingersnaps in their tall cardboard box were soft and bendable when he snitched tow to stick in his pocket.  He could tell too by his father’s grumpiness accumulated through two weeks of drought, his habit of looking off into the southwest, from which either rain or hot winds might come, that something was brewing….”

~the opening paragraph of Wallace Stegner’s “Butcher Bird”

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

VCCA: Random, #2

If you’re stuck in a story, have one of your characters tell a lie or a secret.  Something will change and perk up.  (It may be that this works when you’re also stuck in a boring conversation at a party.)


Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer is an amazingly rich book, excellent for readers and writers.  (Get ready, Converse MFA students, this one will be on your reading lists!)  She examines passages from a wide variety of novels and stories, with a focus on “classics,” to show how writers achieve depth and nuance in their work.  And just when you think you have all the “rules,” there’s a wonderful chapter in which she shows us how Chekhov successfully breaks all these “rules.”

Here’s a quote from Chekhov himself that Prose includes in the book:

“It is time for writers to admit that nothing in this world makes sense.  Only fools and charlatans think they know and understand everything.  The stupider they are, the wider they conceive their horizons to be.  And if an artist decides to declare that he understands nothing of what he sees—this in itself constitutes a considerable clarity in the realm of thought, and a great step forward.”

She goes on to write:

“The second mystery to me is how, without ever being direct, [Chekhov] communicates the fact that he is not describing the world or how people should see the world or how he, Anton Chekhov, sees the world, but only the world that one or another character inhabits for a certain span of time.  When the characters are unattractive, we never feel the author hiding behind them, peeking out from around them to say, ‘This isn’t me, this isn’t me!’…

“But to me the greatest mystery is this matter he keeps alluding to in his letters:  the necessity of writing without judgment.  Not saying, ‘Stealing horses is an evil.’  Not to be the judge of one’s characters and their conversations but rather the unbiased observer.”

Super-smart book.  Read it now!


I need a porch swing:  it’s the perfect place to daydream, watch carpenter bees, listen to birds, ponder the problems of my struggling characters, and drink wine in the evening.

Monday, March 19, 2012

New on Redux: Monica Jacobe

What a lovely coincidence that the piece I've posted today on Redux was originally written here at VCCA, as Monica Jacobe reports in her "story behind the piece."  It's a beautiful, wrenching essay that explores loss and fear and habit:

"I learned to drink coffee by watching my mother.  She used to sit on the corner counter in the kitchen every morning stirring and stirring it.  She made instant—with milk and pills of Nutra Sweet that looked like aspirin.  Her coffee was always the same color and always the same color as her cup—middle brown like toffee or caramel.

"I didn’t drink coffee then, but the smell of it was the smell of morning for the first eight years of my life and still is, in the same way roasting turkey is the smell of Christmas presents.  I used to wake up on those mornings and hurry across the kitchen tile, cold against my bare feet, and curl up in a ball on the little mat in front of the heater just below her feet.  It would blow warm air against my face, and I would inhale deeply the scent of heating ducts and instant coffee in the time before my brother and sister woke up.  I stayed silent and curled up, watching her feet swing above me in fuzzy blue slippers and hearing the sound of coffee stirring over the cycles of the heater."

Friday, March 16, 2012

VCCA: Random, #1

Someone left behind a piece of paper thumbtacked to the wall of my studio (the cozy little corncrib, for those of you who have been to VCCA) with some quotations about characterization.  Here’s the one that’s speaking to me right now:

“You are not your characters, but they are you.”
~John Cheever


And how come no one ever insisted that I read the stories of Wallace Stegner before?  Seriously.  I’ve only read three so far, but they are AMAZING.  I knew he was noted for his way of capturing the landscape, but seriously:

“There had been a wind during the night, and all the loneliness of the world had swept up out of the southwest.  The boy had heard it wailing through the screens of the sleeping porch where he lay, and he had heard the washtub bang loose from the outside wall and roll down toward the coulee, and the slam of the screen doors, and his mother’s padding feet after she rose to fasten things down.  Through one half-open eye he had peered up from his pillow to see the moon skimming windily in a luminous sky; in his mind he had seen the prairie outside with its woolly grass and cactus white under the moon, and the wind, whining across that endless oceanic land, sang in the screens, and sang him back to sleep.” ~from “Buglesong”


The dinners have been amazing, and so healthful that I’m embarrassed that I don’t make quinoa at home because I’m not sure where to find it in the grocery store.  There’s this green sauce the chef makes that is so yummy, I could happily eat grass clippings if drenched in it.


Meanwhile, back in the real world, Shenandoah editor R.T. Smith wrote this wonderful piece about what he looks for as an editor, if he could have one idyllic week of reading submissions:

Day 1
Funk, something hybrid and loamy, misbehaving
like a snake that’s twined a wild vine
scabbed bark and lush blossoms
flagrant, ghastly
rumpled surface, tightly wrought structure and texture
crow-cawking, naughty (but dodging the obscene)
or something wholly serendipity and green

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Work in Progress: Destination Unknown...or, Off to VCCA!

I’m on my way for ten(ish) days at Virginia Center for Creative Arts (VCCA), a heavenly arts colony where all I have to do is…well, whatever I want.  Write, read, daydream, gossip, admire the horses, watch for bluebirds, show up for dinner.

Usually I have all sorts of grand plans and ambitious goals—number of pages, daily word counts—but this time, I think I’m going to work where the wind takes me.  That is, I’ve had several recent months of feeling that I haven’t been able to get to my own work, and that there have been too many things I “should” do, so I’m just going to show up, be present, and see what happens.  I’m going to do what I “want” to do, whether it makes sense in any logical big picture of the marketplace or half-finished ideas.  Fiction?  Non-fiction?  The oft-threatened villanelle?  Could be anything!

(Okay, lest you think I’ve totally lost my mind, I do have some pieces I’d like to revise.  That project is in my head to keep at bay any “it’s so scary not to have a plan” feelings that might arise. But I'm not going to cry if I don't revise these pieces.)

I’m not sure how much email access I’ll have or seek out, so blogging may be lighter for a while.  On the other hand, if I feel like it, I just may blog every single day…or not at all!  See—in my mind, I’m already halfway there…

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Center for Fiction: A Treasure Chest for Writers & Readers

I was pleased to recently discover the site at The Center for Fiction, which offers writers and readers tons of resources and insight on the writing process.  There’s also a terrific online journal, The Literarian.   Audio!  Visual!  Writers writing about their model short story!  Writers on writing!  Writers recommending books to read!  I’m dizzy from excitement….

I’ve only just dipped in, but I was immediately rewarded with an essay by Roxanna Robinson about the differences between writing short stories and novels, a topic on my mind a lot this semester as I’m teaching a novel writing workshop at Johns Hopkins:

“…I start a novel when I’m interested – and troubled – by the idea of a conflict that connects and divides a group of people. That conflict and those people are the driving force of the book. I get to know the characters very well. I often write brief biographies of them. I come to know their backgrounds, what sort of lives they came from, who their parents were, where they went to school, and so I come to know how they will react to things. I come to feel sympathy for them, and compassion. Then I begin the novel.

“In this, the long form, the characters and the conflict create the story. When I start to write a novel I have no idea of what will happen at the end of it. I have no outline, no story line, no synopsis. It’s the characters who will create the narrative, it’s they who will create the final conclusion, the ending. My job is to discover the characters, learn their settings, and then to harness them all to the conflict. It’s their combined energy that will carry me forward, and this process seems to me a bit like driving a dog team - wild, exciting and a bit risky.”

And check out the site:

Monday, March 12, 2012

600 Words...Go!

It’s time for another three-minute fiction contest from NPR.  From the website:

All Things Considered's contest has a simple premise: Listeners send in original short stories that can be read in three minutes or less.

For Round 8 of our short-story contest, we're asking you to send us an original work of fiction that begins with this sentence: ‘She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door.' It must be 600 words or less. One entry per person. Your deadline is 11:59 ET on March 25.

More information—including some helpful advice from guest judge Luis Alberto Urrea—here.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Free & Excellent Children's Ebook: The Worldwide Dessert Contest by Dan Elish

Oh, how my blogging has fallen by the wayside…alas.  Too much fun away = too much work to catch up on back home.

I hope I’ll get back to a more normal blogging schedule soon, but in the mean time, here’s a GREAT deal from a fabulous writer (and a darn good guy) that involves one of my favorite children’s books:

From Dan Elish:

“My first, and possibly best, children's novel, THE WORLDWIDE DESSERT CONTEST is now available for FREE on Amazon in a special promotion. The version available is an ebook that includes links to songs I wrote. So you get a novel and songs all in one! All you need is a computer, iPhone, iPad or any other reading device and a Kindle APP (which is also free) and the book is yours.”

Here’s the link.

And here’s the book’s opening (from my old-fashioned paper edition)…you’ll only have to read a short time to understand why this book is especially close to my heart!

“John Applefeller of Appleton loved desserts.

Especially apple desserts.

He loved eating them, but even more, he loved making then—pies, strudels, crisps, and cakes.  As his Aunt Harriet used to say:  If a man truly cares about making desserts, an apple dessert is what he should make. 

And now, after a decade of making all kinds of different desserts, John Applefeller had just completed the greatest creation of his career—the world’s largest apple pancake.”

Side note:  Here’s a recipe for a yummy looking puffed apple pancake.

Hurry, hurry…this great deal on Dan’s book won’t be around forever.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Beltway Poetry Quarterly ISO Poems for "Poets in Federal Government" Issue

Poets + government job = this call for submissions!

Call for Entries:  Beltway Poetry Quarterly

Beltway Poetry Quarterly seeks poems for a special Poets in Federal Government Issue, Volume 13:3, to be published July 2012.  We will be accepting submissions online during the month of March 2012.

Any poet who is a current or past employee of the Federal Government of the United States is eligible.  Contractors are not eligible, but part-time or seasonal employees are.  Poets may live anywhere in the world.

We seek poems on the theme of government work.  Poems may address: borders, bureaucracy, colleagues, commuting, conflicts of interest, the coast guard, cubicles, efficiency, evaluations, flagpoles, fluorescent lights, the forest service, hierarchy, income, infrastructure, the military, national parks, office equipment, paperwork, per diems, public service, the law, requisitions, security, sick leave, taxes, water coolers, welfare, or other related topics.

Submit from one to five poems in the body of a single email, along with full contact information, and a one-paragraph bio that includes your federal job experience. No attachments will be read.  Poems may be previously published, but only if copyright has reverted to the writer, and the poems do not appear anywhere else on the web (including on blogs and list serves).  The deadline is March 31 at 11:59 and 59 seconds. Poems submitted outside the March reading period will not be considered.  Submit to:

Poets will be notified of editorial decisions by that all-important federal date of April 15.  This special issue will be compiled by Kim Roberts, with guest co-editor Michael Gushue, publisher of Beothuk Books and Vrzhu Books, co-director of Poetry Mutual, author of Conrad and Gathering Down Women, and a member of the federal workforce for 28 years.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Random AWP Wrap-Up

I so admire the bloggers who are able to put together a coherent write-up of the overwhelming blur that is the AWP conference.  Here are two good ones:

In contrast, here is my disorganized snapshot of some memories and impressions* from a weekend that lasted several years:

*Words in quotation marks are direct quotes to the best of my lame note-taking abilities.

--Muriel Rukeyser as quoted by Cathryn Hankla in the excellent point of view panel:  “The world is made of stories, not atoms.”  Someone else quoted this at another point in the conference, though God knows who or when it was, but it seemed like a good theme for the weekend.

--Cathryn Hankla also made me eager to look up James Agee’s story “A Mother’s Tale,” which is from the point of view of a cow and is about genocide.

--That (so excellent!) point of view panel also reminded us that the choice of an unusual POV should illuminate the meaning of the work, that it should not merely be a gimmick…that the POV should emerge from the demands of the story.

--I can’t remember which one, but a literary journal in New Hampshire was giving out samples of the most amazing fudge, shipped to Chicago from New Hampshire.  I signed up to possibly win a month of free fudge, but alas, no such luck. 

--I loved the (also so excellent!) panel on the ethics of writing non-fiction.  Organized by The Sun magazine, each of the participants had a lot of good stuff to say:  Krista Bremer (“assume that everyone will read it, and what will trigger people is surprising”; it could be something very simple that you view as innocuous); Stephen Elliott (the writer “must be fair, not just morally but for the writing” and that people tend to think it’s okay if you write about them and show their good side, or maybe even their bad side…it’s when you show a side they didn’t know they had that causes them distress); Lee Martin (press on to that place of discomfort; admit more than you want to); Cheryl Strayed (write fearlessly, and “what I mean to imply is that you’re going to be very afraid”; write about others only what is necessary to tell the story you’re telling, to illuminate the self); Poe Ballantine (who revealed that he ended up writing memoir because The Sun paid more for that than for the fiction he’d been submitting!).

--Another smart panel was the one called “Novel Anxiety” which explored the (never-ending) “death of the novel” and offered a dazzling reading list that challenged the speed of my note-taking and my spelling skills; the insights about writing were equally dazzling and provocative, from thinking about the inescapable reality of being an American writer in this time (Bob Shacochis) to the attractions of “extreme novels” (Wendy Rawlings) to Laird Hunt’s tour of contemporary world literature to Martha Cooley’s list of “opportunities” for the contemporary novel, including cities as character and the music of language.  From the beginning, we were sent in a good direction when Margot Singer quoted Ezra Pound:  “The artist is always beginning.”

--The reading organized by The Sun magazine was also amazing, featuring Krista Bremer (whose piece made me teary); Poe Ballantine (whose piece made me laugh); Frances Lefkowitz (who left me teary again); and Sun editor Sy Safransky, who read from his notebook about writing in an intimate voice that—I’m sure—made each person in the ballroom feel as though he was whispering secrets to them alone.  A new collection of his notebook writing will be out soon, and I can’t wait!

--I had some whiskey made in Chicago at the West Town Tavern.  I also had some Irish whiskey in the “Irish” bar in the Hilton and then immediately plunged into the crush of the bookfair, which was a very good idea and took the edge off all the writerly angst.  At another time, I embarrassed myself in front of a trio sitting at the The Missouri Review table—oops! not that I wanted to be published there anyway, haha; okay, yes, I do!—but that was a different day than the whiskey day.  See…nothing embarrassing happened when one is fortified by Jameson’s!  (Or, perhaps you simply don’t notice.)

--One can skip lunch if one eats enough candy in the bookfair.  Note to self:  Take the saltwater taffy, but don’t eat it during the bookfair because that will be at least an aisle’s worth of people you’ll miss talking to because you’re still chewing.  Side note: the “chewy marshmallow treats” at Starbucks count as breakfast because they’re made of Rice Krispies.

--Russian Tea Time will tempt even non-drinkers into having a shot of vodka.  Secret confession: If I weren’t under the watchful eye of a group of tattletale writers, I totally would have ordered a second platter of dumplings.

--Perfect Miller’s Pub lunch:  the Templeton highball (rye from Iowa—yes, IOWA!—and ginger ale) and a patty melt.  Best booth:  one of the big ones at the end of the bar.

--The auditorium at Roosevelt University is gorgeous, as are all of the ballrooms at the Palmer House.  If you’re planning a wedding, check them out!  The sexy red Lacquer Room was my favorite.

--Two other panels that I thought were smart were about how to pull off surprises in short stories and how to organize a story collection (Laura van den Berg made a list of all the first and last lines of her stories).

--Snow flurries are the best way to experience snow in Chicago:  pretty coming down and no worries about slush stains on shoes.

--Here are some of the journals that caught my eye at the bookfair and that I lugged home on the plane:
Camera Obscura (this journal also features photography and is stunningly gorgeous)
Ruminate (writing about faith)
Barrelhouse (“pop flotsam ~ cultural jetsam”)
Midwestern Gothic (I think this one is obvious)
Bull (men’s fiction)
Wake (Great Lakes thought & culture; online)

--I’m exhausted, overwhelmed, inspired, sugared up (still!), and have way too much work to catch up on…but I’m ready for Boston 2013!

P.S.  God, I wish I’d won that New Hampshire fudge!  I could eat a lot in a month.  Maybe they sensed that and trashed my entry?


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