Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Heading Off to Converse: Learning Ensues

Well, I’m about to pack up the car and head off to the residency for the low-res MFA at Converse College!  I’ll poke in from time to time, but in general, blogging will be light for the next two weeks—though I’m sure I won’t be able to keep to myself any important visits to Biscuitville or the Beacon Drive-In.

In the meantime, check out Joan Potter’s essay posted on Redux:

Her father’s body is sprawled on the floor. A torn piece of rope is tied around his neck; the rest dangles from the brass light fixture, its frayed end swaying back and forth in the breeze from an open window.

Fifty years had passed before she told this story to me and my two sisters. It was the first time the three of us had heard it. Even after she married my father, she told us, she couldn’t discuss it with him.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Work in Progress: Inspired by Richard Ford

Last night Steve and I went to Politics & Prose to see Richard Ford speak.  We’ve seen him a number of times—he’s one of Steve’s ultra-favorite authors (in fact, I’m pretty sure that on Steve’s “list,” I clock in well behind Richard Ford!)—and Independence Day has a very secure slot on my "favorite books" bookshelf. 

As usual, Richard Ford didn’t disappoint.  I should have taken more notes, because it was such a pleasure to hear someone smart talk about his writing process and reel off quote after quote from other writers.  Definitely one of those situations where you wish you could just sit and listen for a couple of hours, soaking it all in.

Since I didn’t take many notes, this may be somewhat paraphrased, but for what it’s worth:

Ford talked about how he built his new book Canada from twenty pages that he had written back in 1989, having a situation in mind and little else.  When asked about the role of place in his work, it was surprising that he didn’t have an elevated, romantic view of place, noting that he didn’t see place as generative, and that “landscape is, for me, language” and that characters will do what they’re going to do in front of the landscape.  Where you’re from is not the determinant of who you are.  (I’m not sure I fully agree, but it was a thought-provoking statement.)  He said that he thought many of his stories could have taken place in any number of locations, but then laughed and noted that Canada probably couldn’t have taken place in France.  (That was a constant: from the beginning, this book was going to be titled Canada.)

Here’s a bit of writing advice I found useful:  as a writing teacher, he tries to get students to say a lot of things, to put stuff on the page, to say more and more and more.  The idea is that you don’t know what’s there and that if you put a lot on the page, you can discover what’s really relevant and interesting—and edit out the rest.

Also, he was NOT a fan of the Pulitzer board decision to not award a fiction Pulitzer this year…to put it mildly.

It was nice to see a tremendous amount of people in attendance despite the driving rain—and nice to see them all clutching tattered copies of Ford’s books—and nice that Ford signed them all—and nicest of all to chat with Ford in the book line and feel a sense of enveloping graciousness, as if he literally would rather do nothing but chat with you at that exact moment.

He told us that he was on Day 2 of his tour, so if you’re lucky, he’ll be coming somewhere near you.  (Check dates/places here.)  My gold standard for author readings is “would I drive through a snowstorm to see this writer?”  Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!

I made a note to look up his interview on writing with The Paris Review, which is here.

And here’s more information about the new novel, Canada, on the Politics and Prose site.  Check here, to see when/if you can listen to the event on CD or download.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

NPR Three-Minute Fiction Winner: Read It!

NPR runs a periodic contest in which listeners are given a few parameters as a springboard and then asked to submit fictional stories that can be read in three minutes or less.  The winner, “Rainy Wedding” by Carrie MacKillop, is a doozy.  I heard it live on the radio on Sunday evening, and rereading it again just now confirmed my opinion.  I’m admiring of a writer who can pack so much into such a short space and elicit such an emotional response. 

And for people who like underdogs, according to NPR:  MacKillop has no formal background in creative writing. She holds a bachelor's degree in English from the University of California, Los Angeles, but was never accepted into their creative writing program.”

Read and/or listen to the story here.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"My Side of the Mountain" Author Dies

I think I had vaguely noticed on Facebook the May 15 death of children’s book author Jean Craighead George but it wasn’t until today, reading the obituary in The Washington Post, that I realized she was the author of one of my favorite books growing up:  My Side of the Mountain.  There was also a movie version, which I also remember vividly (that snow!).

In it, a boy runs away from home into the wilderness of upstate New York and lives on his own in a hollowed-out tree.  He befriends some animals and there are plenty of challenges, but overall, he does well...so well that an impressionable reader (ahem) might dream about running away herself.  I loved books about animals, and I loved books about kids on their own (looking back, it’s amazing how few parents were in the books I read back then!), and although I wasn’t especially nature-oriented in my daily life, I longed to be and so I loved books about nature.  I still find myself drawn to books about survival...not that I want to give up restaurants and cute shoes!

In the obit, George is quoted as saying of My Side of the Mountain, “It took me only two weeks to write.  It was basically about my own life.” 

Also in the obit:

Ms. George regularly received fan mail from her young readers.

“A lot of them write to tell me they want to run away like Sam did,” she told a Post reporter, referring to the hero of My Side of the Mountain. “I tell them to run away in a book. It’s easier, and warmer.”
So, thank you, Ms. George—and all the authors of all the books I remember deep in my bones, children’s books and adult books—thank you for allowing me to run away, in the reading and in the memories of what I’ve read.  It’s interesting that now if someone mentions a book that they like, I automatically ask who wrote it.  As a child, I barely gave any thought to the people behind the books, unless it was because I needed to know their last name so I would know where to find the books on the library shelves.

If you’re a fan of My Side of the Mountain, you’ll like this Washington Post article in which a reporter goes to the Catskills in homage to Sam, the book’s hero.

Here is George’s author website.

Go ahead and buy the book and reread it…you know you want to!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Link Corral: Job in Seattle; ISO Poetry & Recipes; New on Redux

Writer-in-residence opportunity for Seattle writers:

Richard Hugo House is seeking an accomplished author to become the next writer-in-residence at the nonprofit center for writers on Capitol Hill in Seattle.

Applicants for the position should be practicing, published writers of poetry, fiction or creative nonfiction and accomplished and dedicated writing teachers with experience working with writers of all levels in a traditional workshop setting and on a one-on-one basis as a mentor offering criticism and professional development advice.

Applicants should have a specific artistic project they are working on during their residency (i.e. developing a manuscript for publication) and should have a special interest in the role of writing as a means of engaging people of all cultures and to celebrate, understand and engage in the complex world around us.

Applications are due by June 4, 2012 to Richard Hugo House, c/o Writer-in-Residence Search Committee, 1634 11th Ave., Seattle, WA 98122.  No phone queries please. Questions may be addressed to Brian McGuigan, program director, at <brianmcguigan(at)hugohouse.org> (replace (at) with @).

More details:

Black Lawrence Press ISO submissions of poetry and recipes…yum on both accounts!

Black Lawrence Press is now accepting submissions for a book celebrating food and poetry. Feast: Poetry and Recipes for a Full Seating at Dinner is an invitation to host a dinner party and share a meal, as well as a poetic toast or two, with family and friends. “Much depends on dinner,” Lord Byron wrote in The Island, and we believe that much still does. We invite you to contribute to this project that seeks to nourish body and soul with a delicious dinner and scrumptious poetry.

Guidelines: Black Lawrence Press welcomes established as well as emerging writers to submit a poem and an accompanying recipe to Feast. Both a poem and a recipe are required for the submission to be considered.

There are some specific requirements, so please consult the website: http://blacklawrence.wordpress.com/2012/05/16/call-for-submissions/
Deadline:  June 30, 2012


New on Redux:  “Hindsight” by Allyson Armistead

As a public transportation rider, this short story definitely struck a chord:

“Black man in the back; I see how the fuck it is,” the man in gray will say, into the silence of our bus. We won’t know why he’s shouting, why he’s sitting in the back; we never told him to. There will be so many seats in the front and we’ll count them with our eyes: four on the right, seven on the left, so many seats. Take one, we’ll say, take a seat.

“There’s one right there,” we’ll say. “By the window.”

 “I said I see how the fuck it is,” he’ll say, and his voice will sound louder, red in the quiet. We’ll want to cover our ears, hold our breath, give him our calm. We’ll recall a child, a temper tantrum we’ve seen in the park. We’ll remember how to ignore an instance of acting out. We’ll wonder if adults are really children. We’ll wonder if the man in gray is an adult or child, flailing his arms.

Read on.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Guest in Progress: Marlin Barton, Being Inspiring

Okay, this is cheating because usually a Guest in Progress piece is original to this blog, but I couldn’t resist featuring my Converse low-res MFA fiction colleague Marlin Barton and his inspiring remarks to a group of young writers, found here on the Alabama Writers’ Forum site.

I’ll excerpt a fair bit, but do read the whole thing.  I promise that afterwards, you’ll feel ready to face the empty screen:

You can read the rest of his remarks here.  And you can read more about Marlin “Bart” Barton and his new novel, The Cross Garden, here.  And here are my thoughts on Bart’s superb book of short stories, The Dry Well.  And since it has turned into “Bart Day” here on Work In Progress, let's also throw in a link to his story “Haints at Noon” on Redux!
Those of you here in this room know that success in writing takes more than some vague desire. It takes some level of talent; it takes time (when there are a million other things you could be doing. As the writer Harry Crews once said, “The world doesn’t want you to write. The world wants you to go to the fair and eat cotton candy, preferably seven days a week.”); and it takes commitment. Some of you, perhaps many of you, are beginning to contemplate a career (or a “career”) as a writer. So here’s about a pocketful of advice from me, and a pocketful is about all I’ve got. …

When a teacher suggests a certain book or poem for you, there’s probably a reason. Read it; read it carefully. It probably parallels your work in some way—but it’s better than you are, at least right now. Learn from it. I read writers all the time who are better than me. Hopefully I’ll learn from them. Craft can be taught to a large extent, but true artistry can’t—not by a teacher. The closest you’ll come to learning artistry is through those books that are closest to your vision of the world and to what you’re trying to do as a writer. …

But criticism is necessary for our growth as writers, and it is a major part of our lives as writers. It is simply a fact of life. And a workshop is trial by fire, but think of it as basic training, like in the military. While you’re crawling on the ground under the barbed wire the people shooting are aiming over your head, and the bullets are rubber. So listen to them whizzing by. Learn from them. Grow. Become stronger.

Now, when you begin submitting to journals and agents and editors at publishing houses, it may sometimes feel like those sons-of-a-gun are shooting at you. I once received an NEA fellowship rejection the day before Christmas and a Sewanee Review rejection on a rewrite that they’d asked for the day after Christmas. It was as if they were saying, “Merry Christmas, sucker!” It felt a little like they were gunning for me. But they weren’t. It was just part of the business of writing. …

…I think what’s hardest for most writers is the fear that while they may know they have some level of talent, they suspect it isn’t enough, that they lack just that little bit that would allow them to write a truly fine book, that they don’t have quite what it takes to be published by the best presses. (Maybe writers like Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison have achieved enough success that they don’t have this fear any longer. I don’t know.)

On a bad day, the fear can be even worse. Instead of thinking you don’t have quite enough talent, you think you’re a fraud and will be found out, and that every little criticism and every rejection is proof you’re a fraud. Handling these fears can be difficult because no matter how many poems or stories or books you may publish, these feelings won’t go away, at least for most of us. But here’s the thing to remember: While these feelings may be bad for us emotionally, and they are—they are good for our writing. If you ever lose these fears, you will probably be writing poorly, and you won’t even know it. …

And finally, from a somewhat more contemporary American writer, Andre Dubus, who has sadly passed:

“An older writer knows what a younger one has not yet learned. What is demanding and fulfilling is writing a single word, [then] writing several of them, which become a sentence. When a writer does that, day after day, working alone with little encouragement, often with discouragement flowing in the writer’s own blood, and with an occasional rush of excitement that empties oneself, so that the self is for minutes longer in harmony with eternal astonishments and visions of truth, right there on the page on the desk, and when a writer does this work steadily enough to be a book, the treasure is on the desk. If the manuscript itself, mailed out to the world, where other truths prevail, is never published, the writer will suffer bitterness, sorrow, anger, and, more dangerously, despair, convinced that the work is not worthy, so not worth those days at the desk. But the writer who endures and keeps working will finally know that writing the book was something hard and glorious, for at the desk a writer must be free of prejudice, meanness of spirit, pettiness, and hatred; strive to be a better human being than the writer normally is, and to do this through concentration on a single word, and then another, and another. This is splendid work, as worthy and demanding as any, and the will and resilience to do it are good for the writer’s soul. If the work is not published, or is published for little money and less public attention, it remains a spiritual, mental, and physical achievement; and if, in public, it is the widow’s mite, it is also, like the widow, more blessed.”

These are all beautiful words, and they are true words, but I have to add, while they are wonderful to hear, they are harder to live. You have to live them every day. Because ultimately what’s most important is what we put on the page, and that does have to be its own reward. ….

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

New York Trip, 2: The Bronx Is Up, and the Battery Down

[If you missed the first part of my trip to New York and seeing GATZ, you can catch up here.]

The next day, I used my above-14th-Street exemption to take the subway to the Upper East Side to meet up with a friend for a lovely breakfast of eggs Benedict and another excellent cappuccino at Sant Ambroeus.

Then I went to the Whitney Biennial, a collection of contemporary art, selected to mirror the pulse of “right now in the art scene,” so along with paintings and sculpture, there were installations, films, performance, artists in residence inside the museum, and more.  I lucked into a great, hour-long tour that offered context and insight into the work on display and the Biennial as a whole.  There was much to ponder…and while I do love contemporary art and the way it challenges and pushes at boundaries, for me, there was a noticeable difference between reading about all these works and hearing how the artist was trying to do XYZ and what the process was, versus heading up to the top floor, where a few large pieces from the permanent collection were displayed in small galleries. There, simply looking at something and feeling, were all I needed:  I didn’t need to know how or why or what it meant…it was just an object that was stunning, exactly as is, even when I knew nothing about it.

Insanely, I decided to take the subway down to 14th Street and then walk down Broadway to the hotel at Battery Park, roughly 4 miles.  This was insane because Broadway is a crowded street and because I am easily distracted:  within two blocks, I was wandering through the Strand Bookstore, where I picked up some Ftizgerald books to commemorate our trip and a SIGNED copy of Lionel Shriver’s Game Control.  I was also gratified to see a British paperback of Pears on a Willow Tree on the shelves.  After I tore myself away, I proceeded on with purpose until I saw a woman carrying a Ferrara plastic bag and insanely asked her for directions so I could get some of the best cannoli in the world.  This involved going backwards—and making the wrong choice of which way to turn at every point (though while I was lost, I came across a park in Chinatown where old men were jamming with interesting Chinese instruments).  Insanely, I decided that there was no way I was going back without those cannoli, so I retraced my steps yet again, and finally, finally found Ferrara (at Grand and Mulberry, FYI) and bought cannoli and cookies.  On and on—Broadway is a loooong street—and I marched down the Canyon of Heroes, where the famous ticker tape parades are still held (clearly because it’s so windy and great for floating ticker tape!).  Each parade is marked by a metal plaque in the sidewalk, all the way back to the very first parade for the dedication of the Statue of Liberty, back in 1886.  Whew…back to the hotel to SIT DOWN and take my shoes OFF.

Meanwhile…Steve was wandering around the Financial District, mapless, looking for the Titanic exhibit at the South Street Seaport.  After finding that, he walked across the Brooklyn Bridge—another crowded route; how many people does one’s eyes pass over on any given day in New York?—and ended up on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, admiring the view, until he realized he didn’t know how to get off the Promenade.  Cleverly, he followed a mom with a stroller and escaped…ending up at The River CafĂ©, for a martini and tuna tartare.  Whew…close call!

That night, we exchanged the stories of our adventures over an AMAZING meal at Bouley in Tribeca, a fancy, destination restaurant worth the $$ in terms of food, setting, and service.  I did take a copy of the menu, so I could write out exactly what we ate, but I think you’d all hate us, so suffice it to say that this was one of the best restaurant experiences of my life…everything was inventive and impeccable in taste and presentation.  (Okay, my first course was “fresh Malibu sea urchin terrine with Russian golden osetra caviar.”)  Dinner was like being a judge in a final round of Top Chef!  Plus, there was a bread cart, with a selection of 7 artisan breads (I took currant & anise; Steve went for garlic).  Interestingly, we both had a lot of strange dreams that night, which I’ll blame on the sea urchin.  Just a quick sense of what makes this place special:  as you walk in, you’re greeted by the aroma of apples…the entryway walls are lined with them, and they perfume the air, promising magic ahead.

Gotta work off those sea urchin calories, so we took a walking tour of historical New York, through Big Onion Walking Tours, which hires grad students as guides.  Our guide was interested in architecture, so we got some interesting tidbits about how Doric vs. Ionic columns in the impressive financial district buildings reflected the values of the culture at the time.  It was a fascinating tour, ranging from the Native Americans to the Dutch settlers to the robber barons to a brief encounter with Occupy Wall Street protesters. 

We wound our way up to Soho and ate at one of our favorite pizza restaurants, Lombardi’s.  It’s a bit touristy now (thanks a lot, Food Channel!), but the clam pizza is still stellar.  And while waiting outside, we enjoyed a conversation with an older man who lived in the neighborhood for 38 years (in a rent-controlled apartment, of course, $229/month!--but tiny, he said, like a cubicle) who told us about an old girlfriend named Violet Gleason who drank Pink Squirrels.

After poking around some boutiques and indulging in a fantasy in which I somehow ended up living in a fabulous Soho apartment, we went to the Flatiron District (oops—sorry, below-14th Street rule that went right out the window!) and headed to the Flatiron Lounge as it was opening…a lovely time for more elegant craft cocktails, made and served with care.  My favorite was a milky punch made with chai-infused bourbon.  (Please…these drinks were small!)

We meandered through the Village and then returned to the hotel and sat outside in Battery Park, admiring the water, watching a green light off in the distance, hoping the men with the fishing poles would catch something.

Saturday, the last day:  nothing better than riding a train stuffed with deli food, so we went to Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side.  Pastrami!  Corned beef!  Pickles!  Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda!  Oh, and, um, also a hot dog!  And what I’ll call a celebrity sighting:  I was staring at the photos on the wall of various people posing over the years with one man…who then emerged from the kitchen.  “Mr. Katz”!!  He languidly stood at the counter, surveying his empire of cured meats and the tourists and New Yorkers gobbling them up.  No one knew who he was or noticed him…so I had to jump up and say hello, thanking him for keeping his restaurant so perfect over all these years.  I mentioned that I had been eating here way back in 19--, well, let’s just say way back when, and that everything was still the same as it ever was. 

We wandered around the Lower East Side and stopped at the bookstore/gift shop of the Tenement Museum:  I bought a copy of Rats by Robert Sullivan, a nonfiction book about—you guessed it—rats in New York and what can be learned about the city by studying them.  (I started reading it on the train—fascinatingly creepy!)

And a second celebrity sighting in the train station:  Hoda Kotb, from The Today Show.  I don’t watch The Today Show unless I’m in a hotel room, and I enjoy Hoda and Kathie Lee in a guilty pleasure way, imagining Hoda must have the patience of Job to put up with that irritating Kathie Lee.  Anyway, she was gorgeous even without make-up and animated without being on camera; she was wearing exercise clothes and looked impeccable nevertheless.  She was seeing off family, it seemed—and I didn’t really have anything to say to her—so I merely watched, admiring her perfect legs.  At this point, I was a New Yorker after all, too cool to be overly impressed by something like a celebrity in Penn Station.

And then this little piggy cried wee-wee-wee all the way home…thankful to have Katz’s leftovers for dinner.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

New York Trip: The Bronx Is Up, and the Battery Down

What could be a better reward after a long semester than a trip to New York City?  If you’re me, nothing!  Here are some highlights (warning: reading this may make you hungry).

We decided to cash in a hundred years of accumulated credit card points to stay at a nice hotel, and in a rash act of immense bravery, decided to stay in a totally different part of town to encourage us to deviate from our usual midtown haunts.  In fact, once we settled on the Ritz-Carlton at Battery Park, we even made a new rule:  No trips above 14th Street.  (Okay, with a few exceptions.)

The hotel was lovely, right on the tip of the island, and the view from our window was better than TV: the Statue of Liberty; Staten Island ferries; countless sailboats, barges, and sightseeing boats; the New Jersey skyline; and a popular park and walkway.

Our first stop upon arriving was Luke’s Lobster, down a warren of crooked streets.  (Talk about being off the grid…the landscape of the Wall Street area seems to have absolutely no logic to it.)  The lobster rolls were fantastic—big, juicy chunks of meat, just a smear of mayo, buttery top-split rolls.  The Maine experience was complete with a bottle of Root blueberry soda from Maine, which was not weird at all, but utterly yummy, leading me to wish there was more blueberry soda in the world.  (Happy to discover that there’s a Luke’s in DC!!)

We then went to the 9/11 Memorial.  Because the site is in the midst of a construction zone, there are major security measures in place, so we were herded and wanded and marched through lines before reaching the memorial.  (At some point—supposedly—the memorial will be part of a park that’s open on all sides.)  For me, the constant flow of people taking smiling photos was a bit disconcerting at first, but such is the nature of memorials (haven’t I casually glanced at a WWI statue before moving on?).  The memorial itself was, to me, very moving; I couldn’t imagine any improvement to the design and the emotional evocation.  It was terribly sad to read all…those…names…: of remarkably varied nationalities, women dying along with “her unborn child,”family members grouped together.  This memorial is as perfect in its austere perfection as the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC.

It will sound terrible to say what we did immediately after viewing the memorial, but it had started raining!  Forgive us!  We went shopping at Century 21, the famous/infamous discount store for designer clothes.  Great deals—if you can stand the crowds, cramped conditions, disorganization, and lines, which we could for a very short time.  Look for my cool new sweater next fall!

That night, we were lucky enough to have reservations at Milk & Honey on the Lower East Side, one of the vanguards in the craft cocktail/speakeasy revival.  The place is tiny and dark and narrow and totally cozy.  We were seated in one of the four or five booths (along with 5-6 seats at the bar, that’s all the space there is!), and proceeded to be served a series of remarkable and inventive cocktails.  There’s no menu, so you offer some thoughts on what you like/don’t like, and the bartender chooses from one of (we were told) six hundredish drinks in the repertoire.  Everything is housemade and is relevant to the classic age of cocktails (i.e. pre-prohibition).  No vodka!   Steve is very well-versed in craft cocktails, and out of the five (small!) drinks we had, there was not one we had even heard of.  Our favorite:  De La Lousianne.  (Here’s a recipe.)  A totally thrilling experience.

Nice to sleep in a bit the next morning, and then on to Bricklane Curry House in the East Village to meet a friend.  While the lunch buffet seemed enticing, I wanted to try something that I might not get anywhere else, so I was steered to the Madras curry, which was excellent—chicken in a spicy sauce with mustard seeds (drawback: paranoia all afternoon that seeds were stuck in my teeth).  Steve had a selection of tandoori chicken, including one that was green! 

We walked around the neighborhood a bit, then fortified ourselves with one of the best cappuccinos I’ve ever had at La Colombe.  (Since I don’t drink coffee much, this isn’t saying a lot, so take it from Steve, who’s a total coffee snob, that this cappuccino was stellar.)  The reason for the caffeine?  At 3:00, we headed to Gatz, the 8 hour play that involves a word-by-word reading of The Great Gatsby.  (You can see a trailer and read more about Gatz here.)

We emerged from Gatz at 11:30 PM.  Whatever I say about this experience will not do justice to the afternoon or the play, so take what I say and multiply it by infinity to understand what it was like.  The premise sounds simple: an office drone can’t access his computer, so he picks up a paperback copy of The Great Gatsby and begins reading out loud, becoming Nick in the process.  Various co-workers float through the scene and slowly become the other characters, reading the dialogue as written.   What was amazing to me was that many of the characters didn’t necessarily look how I would imagine them—i.e. Gatsby = Robert Redford—and yet they totally inhabited their roles.  And the cast did a great job of finding—and creating—humor; I’ve always thought much of the dialogue is amusing, but Gatz made the book feel laugh-out-loud.  The staging was clever, using the office setting in inventive ways.  And how many times have I read this book?  And Steve, too?  Yet we both agreed that there were many, many phrases and moments that we swore we were hearing for the first time.  By the final chapter, Nick closes the book and recites from memory…he has truly melded into the words, and so has the audience.  Standing ovation!

There were four intermissions and a 90-minute dinner break—still full from Indian food, we ended up at Swift for a drink, not sorry that the unavailability of seats meant that we had to stand (a literary day, as the bar was named for Jonathon Swift)—and while it was a long day, it honestly never felt long.  We were entranced and transformed; there was something magical about leaving the theatre in the dark, Fitzgerald’s words in our head, the passage of that Long Island summer melding with the passing of our day, Nick’s transformation calling forth thoughts about our own lives.

Easily one of the top five theatrical experiences of my life.

To be continued….!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Writers' Happy Hour: 5/15, Downtown DC

Sorry this is a little last-minute, but I’m so pleased that my recent Conversations & Connections panel about finding literary community in DC inspired Willona Sloan to set up a writers’ happy hour, open to all (with RSVP):

Write. Drink. Read. A Writers' Happy Hour
Tuesday, May 15, 6:30 - 8:00 PM
Science Club (1136 19th St, NW, WDC. Near Farragut West Metro)

RSVPs required.

Part writers workshop, part happy hour, part open mic reading, this laid back collaborative, creative gathering is open to writers of all levels and experience. We'll grab a beer, do some writing and share our work in an open and supportive creative space. RSVPs are required to make sure we have enough space. Email Willona at creativegeniusdc@gmail.com. For more info, go to http://dcscorpiongirl.wordpress.com/

Even if you can’t make this meeting, send along an email to express interest for future events!


On the blog tomorrow:  My epic trip to New York City, including my report on seeing Gatz!!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Mr. Miyagi

I’m going on blog vacation for a week or so. 

Until then, be sure to check out this blog post by Clay Snellgrove, one of my Converse low-res MFA students, in which I am compared to the iconic Mr. Miyagi of The Karate Kid (original version, of course):

My mentor was listed on my class roster as Leslie Pietrzyk.   The last name wasn’t Miyagi, but its spelling was just as bizarre, so I figured I could make do.  After Leslie was featured in one of the residency’s evening readings where she shared an original piece of short fiction, I had my Miyagi moment, witnessing the talent of my soon-to-be teacher.  …  My frustration level after reviewing Leslie’s notes on my first story most likely rivaled Daniel Larusso’s after his days of painting fences and waxing cars for Mr. Miyagi.  But like Daniel-son, I forged ahead.  And while the notes that continued to come throughout the semester were heavy on what was missing and things not to do, I felt my desire to write and write well growing.

It was a good week for being recognized for the work I put into teaching, as last week I attended the fabulous graduating student reading at Johns Hopkins and discovered that I was selected to receive the Distinguished Professional Achievement Award for faculty.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Work in Progress: The Ticking Clock

My neighborhood prompt group met yesterday.  Our first prompt was the word “blue,” inspired by the poem that is currently up at Redux, “A History of Blue,” by Sarah Brown Weitzman, which is a beautiful catalogue of varying types of the color blue:

…a period of Picasso’s, fountain
pen ink, first-place ribbons, husky’s eyes,

Concord grapes, shrimp’s veins, overalls,
lagoons and lakes, a hint in skim milk…

When we shared what we had written, it turned out that our group came up with some great stuff, a wide range of approaches to the same, open-ended word.  I’ve been toying with some characters I might place in a longer work, and writing short exercises like this has been illuminating in terms of discovering conflict and complexity in these women.  As Fitzgerald said, “Action is character,” and a writer can sit and think about characters till the cows come home, but it’s dumping them into a moment of action that will show what these people are made of, will illuminate who they really are.

I found our second prompt more challenging:  “Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can,” which is a quotation by John Wesley, and an “inspirational” quote from a teabag.  So I dumped my characters into a dinner scene where someone’s father is pontificating about the decline of hard work in Americans today, blah, blah, blah.

As I was writing, I realized that this scene was about as boring as it would be in real life, despite my loving descriptions of the spaghetti everyone was eating.  Feeling the pressure of the fifteen-minute writing deadline, I desperately saw that something needed to happen, either an event or a conflict beyond the dull conversation.  So I dumped in a rather random complication, which led me to another complication—which led me to understanding something new, surprising and interesting about the relationships between these characters.

What I’m saying is, during the first draft stage of writing, the writer might think about that ever-present fifteen minute ticking clock.  Fiction thrives on conflict, and if you don’t have one—and soon—you and your reader are going to feel as trapped as my characters did, listening to the droning father.  The clock provided the pressure, yes, as did the presence of the group to whom I would later read my work, but the format—an innocent little exercise versus a “scene” or a “story” or, God forbid, a “novel”—provided the freedom to feel loose.   And this time, I was rewarded—proving again why patience and faith are so important in the writing life.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

All Those Voices in Your Head!

The day after my last novel workshop at Johns Hopkins seems like a good time to link to this piece by Debra Spark about how to sort through critiques and editorial suggestions:

Criticism?  Take it or leave?  How do you know what to do when someone suggests revisions to your work?  You can’t just take everyone’s advice.  You can’t try to write a story by committee.  If you do, you’ll get the very sort of thing that committee’s produce:  deadly prose.

My additional advice:  Wait for a while before tackling any revision—until the dust settles, your mind is clear, and any irritation you may have felt has faded.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Historical Research in the Novel Writing Process

Here’s a nice piece by Gregory Spatz from the Glimmer Train newsletter that is about the research process for an historical novel, but beyond that, excellently highlights the important role of patience and faith in the writing life:

“I let the information pile up in my head until it felt like a fictional context…like my own fictional context, and then I kept waiting, reading. I wouldn't say I ever got stuck at that point of "research rapture" I've heard other writers talk about, where you keep postponing the act of getting down to it and writing something, in order to learn a little more about your subject. I was never quite patient or enthralled enough for that. But I certainly read more than I ended up using. That's probably necessary and inevitable. I had to absorb enough material to where it felt like I'd internalized it, owned it somehow—until it felt ripe for development.”


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