Wednesday, December 18, 2013

2013’s Ten Best Books (I Read or Reread)

Once again, I’m flipping through the pages of my book journal to see which books I thought were the best…which means this is my highly personal, highly unscientific take:  sometimes I loved a book that may not be a work of “art.”  Many times those books may not have been published in the current year.  The only rule is that I have to have read them in 2013.  Also, I try to avoid putting books by friends on my list, though on occasion I also allow myself to break that rule every now and then.  So, in order only of when I read them throughout the year, here goes:

1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn:  A bestseller that is hardly a book that needs my endorsement, but I’ll say that I consumed this in about 24 hours, wondering how on earth the author could write to an ending…and totally impressed that she did. 

2. With Robert Lowell and His Circle by Kathleen Spivack: The best literary gossip about an amazingly talented group of people in a most creative time and space, 1950-60s Boston…this book sent me down a remarkable Robert Lowell rabbit hole that I may never emerge from.

3. Serena by Ron Rash:  Another popular book that hardly needs my accolades but just SO compelling and beautifully written.  I can’t love Serena, but I sure was fascinated by/terrified of her.

4.  The Pat Hobby Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald:  A reread, and my exact words from my book journal:  “I was worried, but yes—these stories still make my heart ache.”  A down-on-his-luck Hollywood hack still tries to believe he’s someone of relevance…just like Scott himself, I imagine.

5.  Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion:  Another reread.  How does she get away with writing episodically about an emotionally numb character who’s not entirely sympathetic?  Oh, of course: because she’s Joan Didion.

6.  The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford: A lovely pathway of the Robert Lowell rabbit hole, discovering this novel by one of his wives…I’m so angry that the book has been forgotten and that Jean Stafford is basically a footnote.  Wit, sarcasm, darkness, secrecy…sign me up for more of Stafford’s work!

7.  Deliverance by James Dickey: A reread, which sent me back to the movie (also brilliant). A nail-biter even knowing the outcome, and a dark, dark, dark book from which no one emerges unscathed. I recommend reading it while alone in a cabin in the same Georgia mountains where the book takes place!

8.  Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell:  Smart writing that cracks like a whip and leaves you feeling uncomfortable.  These stories burrow into the souls of girls and women and spills their secrets.

9.  The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor:  A reread. And if I had to pick one book that shaped my writing/mind during this year, it would be these stories, especially when combined with the experience of being in Georgia while reading them and visiting O’Connor’s house and town.  Dark, funny, true, hard…these stories chill me to the marrow.

10.  The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt:  Totally immersive and addictive, with memorable characters and richly evoked settings—and lots and lots of plot!  A big book in the best meaning of the word.  Set aside your life for a few days and dig in!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

One Powerful Sentence

Poet/ small press publisher Ed Perlman, my colleague at Johns Hopkins, teaches a very popular class called “Sentence Power” that all the students rave about.  I know why, based on this glimpse of Ed’s insight into the role of a single sentence taken from Alice McDermott’s novel, After This:

Facial description continues to challenge even the most accomplished writers, and when the writer wants the description to give the reader insight into deep character, the task can become daunting. Alice McDermott never fails to rise to the occasion. Her description of her main character’s office co-worker in After This begins benignly enough with the commonplace details that are the stock-in-trade of many MFA fiction students. For “large face” substitute “round face,” “oval face,” “small face,” “flat face,” and for “strong jaw” substitute “square jaw” or “weak jaw,” and you can see how easily this sort of description begins to fall into the abyss of cliché. Add the color of the eyes to push the sentence over the cliff. Yet no such fate awaits McDermott’s deceptively simple and straightforward rendering of Pauline’s physiognomy. Those blue eyes provide the departure for a description that takes my breath away every time I read it.

You MUST read on, to see precisely how McDermott creates this artful and revealing sentence…and to have your own eyes opened to how your sentences can be more powerful.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

More on Donna Tartt, My Literary Crush

Here’s a good interview with Donna Tartt, author of The Goldfinch, the book I’m currently pushing on everyone:

“When people ask you why you did this or that you’re sort of compelled to make up the reasons. But the real answer is, I don’t know why.” The best answer she can give is to cite Rudyard Kipling’s maxim: drift, wait, and obey….

With all her books, she says, what she is striving for is an “immersive experience – the kind of book that you can absolutely lose yourself in; where you’re in a different world, your mother calls you, you don’t hear her – that kind of book.” In short, the kind of books that she loved as a child growing up in Mississippi, “a girl who loved books for boys” – Jules Verne, Ivanhoe, Robert Louis Stevenson….

Her working method is Byzantine. She writes in longhand in large spiral-bound notebooks, adding thoughts and corrections in red, blue and then green pencil, and stapling index cards to them to keep track of plot and characters. When it all starts getting “too messy” she types the manuscript into the computer, then prints out the drafts on colour-coded paper. “I can pick up the pink draft, and I know that’s the first one; or the grey draft, or the most recent one is the blue. So if I need something from an older draft I know where to find it. My French teacher, many years ago, told me this, and it actually works.”…

Friday, December 6, 2013

Why I Loved "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt is one of the few writers who makes me feel I must read every word she writes.  Admittedly, it’s a bit easy in this case, since she comes out with a novel about once every ten years, big, juicy books with lots of plot and fabulous characters: The Secret History, The Little Friend, and now, The Goldfinch, which I finished this morning.  At 771 pages, it’s not something to enter lightly (and it will make your wrists hurt if you still prefer paper editions, as I stubbornly do [though, sidenote, I really did not like the paper this book was printed on—why has no reviewer noted this?]).

Still, Donna Tartt!  So I buckled down and started reading over the Thanksgiving weekend.  I’m not going to give much away, but the basic premise is that a young boy and his mother are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when a terrorist bomb explodes, killing the mother.  The boy, Theo Decker, has a surreal exchange with a dying man who gives him a ring and tells him an address to take it to.  He also tells Theo to save (by stealing) a painting, The Goldfinch by the Dutch painter Fabritius, who died tragically early—also in an explosion—and who was notably a student of Rembrandt and an influence on Vermeer, as well as being a genius in his own right. (Here’s a picture of the painting.)

Theo does as instructed, and many, many, many things happen afterwards, taking us from New York to Las Vegas to New York to Europe.

This may not be the right book for everyone, but it is about the perfect book for me.  What I loved about it:

--The Dickens-ish cast of characters, all well-defined and slightly larger than life, and yet believable enough…Boris was a particular favorite!

--The feeling of being immersed in a book in exactly the way we (I assume this was not unique to me!) read as children, that sense of suspense and fear, “what will happen next?”, and seeing the world through a (smart, observant) child’s eyes.  If you read and loved “orphan books” back in the day, you are exactly the right reader for this one.

--The magic of coincidence and reversals and plot that Tartt remarkably pulls off.  If you like Harry Potter books, I suspect you’ll like this one, too—there’s a similar twisted inter-connectedness but with a much more sophisticated view and writing style.  She was so good, that even I suspended my disbelief on a few nit-picky bits of reality (surely Theo would get some settlement money after this tragedy).

--There’s some purposeful meta- that I enjoyed, such as Boris’s nickname for Theo: Potter (because of his round eyeglasses); she knows she’s channeling Harry and what we love about that series. The writer raises the curtain a bit from time to time to let us in on her intentions without ever losing compassion for her characters.

--Wonderfully evoked settings.  New York is very New Yorky, but then a different, non-touristy side of Las Vegas is equally well-depicted.  I’ve never been to Amsterdam, but I felt very comfortable in those sections, so much so that I’m rather surprised now, out of the book, that I haven’t actually seen those canals in real life.

--So many elements of the writing were masterful on a craft level.  Great dialogue (it’s a very talky book, which I find attractive).  Perhaps the only dream in fiction that is executed elegantly and feels well-placed and relevant, unlike the usual fictional dreams that often come off as convenient plot devices.  And I can’t believe I’m saying this!  More exclamation points than any writer should every use!  And yet I’m convinced she needed every single one! !! 

--Finally, and the biggest plus of all, is that the book ultimately asks the hard questions about life and death and art, and what could be more essential?

Read more:
Salon interview with Donna Tartt:To think about a place has always been a way into a story.

The Washington Post: “The novel ends in full-throated praise for the power of a great painting to sink into your soul, to act as a bulwark against the inevitable victory of death.  Look here: A great novel can do that, too.”

The New York Times Book Review:   “It’s my happy duty to tell you that in this case, all doubts and suspicions can be laid aside. “The Goldfinch” is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind. I read it with that mixture of terror and excitement I feel watching a pitcher carry a no-hitter into the late innings. You keep waiting for the wheels to fall off, but in the case of “The Goldfinch,” they never do.”

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Melissa Dickson's Review of Scything Grace

Scything Grace
by Sean Thomas Dougherty
Etruscan Press (2013)

Reviewed by Melissa Dickson

A benign manila envelope arrives in the mailbox—inside, a book; on the book’s cover, a genderless figure in jeans and a black top. The photograph’s exposure produces a decapitation as the head and face disappear. There, in the dark nether regions of the image, a title: Scything Grace

From the opened pages falls the publisher’s note, “Enjoy!”

It might better have said “Endure!”  …exclamation point intact.

Sean Thomas Dougherty’s Scything Grace doesn’t ask a reader to enjoy. It asks for company inside the dark hall of loss. It offers itself “heavy with grief,” and serves a brew of sorrow: contemplative, savage, and enduring.  Here is a child unborn, a marriage in tatters, dead friends, drug addicts and drunks, victims of the AIDS epidemic, homeless lovers, gambling addicts. Here is “a hallway of maps leading nowhere.” Here is a man alone with memory, disappointment, a vision of an unfulfilled future, and the “seven deaths I carry every day.”

“[I]f not for my shadow,” writes Dougherty in “This Ongoing Elegy to Everything,” “I would not have seen another human figure today.” So it seems throughout Scything Grace. The poems’ speakers are surrounded by shadows named and unnamed, born and unborn, compromised, lost, forgotten, dead. Here, in this “neighborhood of ghosts,” comes a kind of beauty and pathos that can only be endured. Dougherty’s song is not Amazing Grace, redemptive and whole; it is Scything Grace, brutal and riven.

In “Confessional Poem,” he writes “I too haven’t been born,” as if the accumulated loss has negated any possibility of being, living, beyond loss.  The poem “Sonogram” begins:

                You want to say the bell to a trumpet. A hollow sound. The sound of
                emptiness becoming

                whole. Whole as a loaf of bread, and the hungry sound that

It is the emptiness and loss, the tragedy, which becomes tangible in these poems. What’s gone is itself the artifact; what it leaves behind—its absence—becomes the material possession accumulated and catalogued in Scything Grace.

Several lines later “Sonogram” continues:

                A thumb-sized sound.

                That small. That full of losing. How large it grows. And you are lost
                in the forest of what did not happen.
The ideas of loss and of being lost are entwined motifs throughout the book. The poem “No Forwarding” concludes, “my last known address remains your face—“  The m-dash leading into the desolate remains of the page.

Maps, destinations, departures, and the departed all commingle in Dougherty’s tour of hurt.  In “Triptych from the Dictionary of Dead Letters” the speaker asks “The story goes to what geography? What map?” “Poem Written in the Margins of an Eclipse” ends “we have no map to offer. To travel our/weeping labyrinths.”  In “Drugs in Perfect Jars” the map becomes “a lithograph”:

                a lithograph of the city swept
                from your elaborate self, from its crumbling
                ramparts of someone else watching the rain
                slowly scything through the darkening trees.

In Scything Grace, place is a state of being, and states of being become places as in the prose poem “Orphaned:”

                […] If
                my life is an abandoned farmhouse at night I stare through the beams
                of my roof. I stare passed [sic] the fabulous constellations. Nothing that is
                not alone interests me.

The metaphysical idea of alone-ness, or abandonment, becomes a physical manifestation in nearly every poem of Scything Grace. The final poem, a prose poem titled “Your Voice is a Right Cross,” is no exception:

                […] We carry those invisible seams throughout
                the day. And how in the house of done, the house of leaving, the house
                of left, something remains. Another kind of music embroidered in the  
                threaded air, in the sentiment of a lover’s look, in the sound of freight
                trains coupling, or the long drive up to Detroit…

But here there also seems to be a parting volley that rings of hope: “what I mean to/say is we have survived, unexpectedly sighed, crowbarred and jabbed,/if our arms are a house, how lucky we are we take turns being the roof:”

The colon at the bitter end of the collection signals back toward the first page, where the cycle of loss and survival begins again.  Were it not for Dougherty’s charismatic voice, rhythmic syntax, and vivid imagery, the heartbreak would be unendurable. This is the gift Dougherty grants readers of Scything Grace: you will know pain; you will know loss; you will “Endure!”

Buy this book. : Etruscan Press (2013) 

Melissa Dickson’s poetry has appeared in Shenandoah, North American Review, Southern Humanities Review, Cumberland River Review, Southern Women’s Review, and Literary Mama. She is a 2015 Pushcart nominee for Shenandoah and Cumberland River Review. Her collections Sweet Aegis, Medusa Poems (Negative Capability Press) and Cameo (New Plains Press) were published in 2013 and 2011. She holds an MFA in Painting from The School of Visual Arts (1995) and an MFA in Creative Writing from Converse College (2012). 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Day Menu!

Thanksgiving Day
Thursday, November 28, 2013

Spiced Nuts
Selection of Cheeses
Selection of Cocktails

Roast Turkey
Cornbread Stuffing
Grand Marnier Cranberry Sauce
Mashed Potatoes &Gravy
Gratineed Mustard Creamed Onions
Roasted Butternut Squash with Ginger
Brussels Sprouts Cockaigne
Pinot Noir, Elk Cove, 2011
Saint-Peray, Anne-Sophie Pic & Michael Chapoutier, 2011

Pumpkin Pie
Peanut Butter Blossom Cookies

Coffee & Tea

Saturday, November 23, 2013

GWU's FREE Jenny McKean Moore Community Workshop in CNF...Apps Due 1/7/14

The George Washington University
Jenny McKean Moore Free Community Workshop
Spring 2014 – Creative Nonfiction Workshop

Wednesdays, 7:00 – 9:00 p.m.
January 22 –April 23 , 2014

Led by Molly McCloskey

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

To apply, please submit a brief letter of interest and a sample of your writing, 12 pt type, double spaced, and no more than 7 pages in length.  Make sure you include your name, address, home and work telephone numbers, and email address for notification.  Application materials will not be returned, but will be recycled once the selection process is completed.  Applications must be received at the following address by close of business on Tuesday, 7 January 2014. 

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

All applicants will be notified by email of the outcome of their submissions no later than Saturday, 18 January 2014.

Molly McCloskey is the Jenny McKean Moore Writer in Washington for 2013-2014. She is the author of two collections of short stories, a novel, and – most recently – a memoir, Circles Around the Sun. She normally resides in Dublin, Ireland.

The George Washington University is an equal opportunity institution.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

My Favorite Thanksgiving Stuffing

It’s that time of year again…the time we start making lists and thinking about what we’re thankful for, and FOR SURE I am very, very thankful for this stuffing recipe!  I post it on my blog every year just in case someone is looking to change up their own stuffing or—gasp!—hasn’t made stuffing ever.  This is simply the best stuffing there is.  “Some people” might even call it a dinner entrée.

Cornbread & Scallion Stuffing
Adapted from the beloved, still-missed Gourmet magazine, November 1992
(It’s actually called Cornbread, Sausage & Scallion Stuffing, but in an uncharacteristic nod to heart-health, I don’t put in the sausage. See the note below if you’d like to add the sausage.)

For the cornbread:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/3 cups yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon double-acting baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 large egg
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled

For the stuffing:
¾ stick unsalted butter plus an additional 2 tablespoons if baking the stuffing separately
2 cups finely chopped onion
1 ½ cups finely chopped celery
2 teaspoons crumbed dried sage
1 teaspoon dried marjoram, crumbled
1 teaspoon crumbled dried rosemary
½ cup thinly sliced scallions
1 ½ cups chicken broth if baking the stuffing separately

Make the cornbread: In a bowl stir together the flour, the cornmeal, the baking powder, and the salt. In a small bowl, whisk together the milk, the egg, and the butter, and add the milk mixture to the cornmeal mixture, and stir the batter until it is just combined. Pour the batter into a greased 8-inch-square baking pan (I actually use a cast iron skillet) and bake the cornbread in the middle of a preheated 425 F oven for 20-25 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. (The corn bread may be made 2 days in advance and kept wrapped tightly in foil at room temperature.)

Into a jellyroll pan, crumble the corn bread coarse, bake it in the middle of a preheated 325 F oven, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes, or until it is dry and golden, and let it cool.

Make the stuffing:  In a large skillet, melt 6 tablespoons of butter and cook the onion and the celery over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened. Add the sage, marjoram, rosemary, and salt and pepper to taste and cook the mixture, stirring, for 3 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl, add the corn bread, the scallion, and salt and pepper to taste, and combine the stuffing gently but thoroughly. Let the stuffing cool completely before using it to stuff a 12-14 pound turkey.

The stuffing can be baked separately: Spoon the stuffing into a buttered 3- to 4-quart casserole, drizzle it with the broth, and dot the top with the additional 2 tablespoons of butter, cut into bits. Bake the stuffing, covered, in the middle of a preheated 325 F degree oven for 30 minutes and bake it, uncovered, for 30 minutes more.

Serves 8-10; fewer if I am one of the dinner guests!

Note: Here are the instructions if you want to add the sausage: The recipe calls for “3/4 lb bulk pork sausage” that you brown in a skillet. Remove it from the pan—leaving the fat—and proceed with cooking the onions, etc. Add the sausage at the end, when you combine the cornbread and scallion with the onion mixture.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Writing Short Stories vs. Writing Novels...Highlights of My Recent Talk

I recently spoke at the excellent First Fridays writing series in Leesburg, Virginia, sponsored by The Writer’s Center.  My topic was how to make that big move from writing short stories to writing novels, one of my favorite problems to ponder.

Attendee—and friend!—Karolina Gajdeczka  was kind enough to post a summary of my remarks on the Potomac Review blog.  Clearly she takes AMAZING notes, as some of this is virtually word-for-word:

Characters:  Characters should all mean something in a novel, and should have depth so they are capable of something surprising.  Ideally, characters in a novel need to act, and preferably act poorly, so their actions lead to more and more complicated circumstances and more desperation.  What do the characters want? Externally and internally?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Easiest, Amazing-est Spaghetti Sauce...with Canned Tomatoes!

I have to pass along the world’s simplest, super-yummy dish: Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter, based on a recipe by the renowned Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan.  I’m sure everyone else in the world knows her recipes, making me late to this party…but better late than never! 

The New York Times Magazine ran an appreciation of her on Sunday, accompanied by several recipes, with some mouth-watering photographs.  But this one in particular really caught my eye, since it looked suspiciously easy.  Three ingredients plus salt and spaghetti noodles?  Canned tomatoes?  I could make this without going to the grocery store?  Sign me up!

I can’t speak to the magical chemistry that is the combination of canned tomatoes and butter—I can only speak to the fact that there is, indeed, magic in this dish and that you MUST make it immediately.  You could serve this at a dinner party and everyone would rave.  You could eat the whole pan all by yourself…which is what Steve and I did.

My only caution is that quality matters here, and that you really do need the better canned tomatoes (which are worth the extra $ anyway). I used a whole can of diced San Marzano—white label with a silhouette of tomatoes.

Here’s the piece in the Magazine, and here’s the easiest version of the recipe and its link to the New York Times (with a hilarious correction at the end):


  • 2 cups tomatoes, with their juices (for example, a 28-ounce can of San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes)
  • 5 tablespoons butter
  • 1 onion, peeled and cut in half
  • Salt

1. Combine the tomatoes, their juices, the butter and the onion halves in a saucepan. Add a pinch or two of salt.

2. Place over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, for about 45 minutes. Stir occasionally, mashing any large pieces of tomato with a spoon. Add salt as needed.

3. Discard the onion before tossing the sauce with pasta. This recipe makes enough sauce for a pound of pasta.

 ~Recipe by Marcella Hazan

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

My Story in The Gettysburg Review

My story “The Circle” is in the current issue of The Gettysburg Review.  (And, ahem, my name is even on the cover! Yes, of COURSE it’s spelled correctly…this is a top-quality journal with an excellent team of smart, dedicated, and extremely careful editors.)

This story is close to my heart because it is the first one I wrote that addressed this part of my life, and it led to the collection of linked stories I recently finished. I was inspired to write “The Circle” after a breakfast conversation at VCCA (Virginia Center for Creative Arts), when the poet I was sitting with talked about how she was teaching a class that focused on the literature of subcultures.  I walked to my studio and thought, “What subculture could I write about?”  Then I wrote the first draft of this story, in about 2 days. (Here’s a short write-up of that pivotal writing moment in 2011.)

 Here’s where you can order a copy, should you so desire. The journal is also available at many university libraries and often at Barnes & Noble. (The cover shows a beautiful picture of skyscrapers…with MY NAME on the back!)  This is one of my favorite journals, so I also recommend subscribing…I’ve been a steady subscriber for at least ten years.

Finally, here’s a glimpse of my story:

            The church door was locked, so the group stood in the May evening, a cluster of seven women and one man, none of them saying much of anything beyond murmurs about what time it might be, and that surely someone would come soon to let them in.  It was a Lutheran church, or maybe Methodist—one of those churches that blurred a bit for not being imposingly Catholic like the churches she had known growing up in Chicago.  This was a church that was more like a school:  functional, not worshipful, nothing to inspire.  That was okay.  Impossible to imagine she would feel inspired ever again.
            The church was located in Virginia, off a Beltway exit she had never taken—Little River Turnpike, which was a charming, old-fashioned name for a road, though the buildings and houses along it were like everywhere else—and not too far from the Beltway.  Standing silently, she heard the distant drone of traffic. 
            She worried that she would be the youngest one.  She worried that she would be the oldest one, though the man was surely older than she was; he had to be in his late forties.  Still.  People sometimes looked old when they weren’t.  
       She was thirty-five, turning thirty-six in September and couldn’t wait to not be thirty-five.  Like being a child, caring intensely about a birthday.
            Across the cluster stood a woman with shoulder-length, wispy, white-blond hair—not colored but naturally that way—and the blue eyes a country singer might have.  The woman’s arms were pressed rigid against her sides, perfectly straight and stiff, as if someone had told her not to let them move, not even a little bit.  Her cheeks were pink, as if from the sun or wind, a natural pink. There was a trick she had learned from her mother, “Find one person in a group who you could be friends with.  That settles the butterflies.”  
            Her.   The white-blonde woman. 
           But picking the white-blonde woman didn’t mean she would smile, or go talk to her, or do anything but stand in this shapeless, formless clump, waiting for the person who was supposed to come and unlock the door for them, the person who was going to show them what to do, the leader they would follow.

             Ruth Feinstein is a social worker who specializes in grief and grieving.  When the newscasters report that grief counselors are available to students in a school tragedy or to office workers following a shooting, Ruth might be one of them.  “How can you do that?” people ask at parties when she tells them what her job is.  “It’s so depressing,” they announce, as if they somehow know Ruth’s life, and on and on they go, about how sad it would be to be around sad people talking sadly about sad things.  Finally, there’s the point where Ruth always says, “What’s sad to me is people who cut themselves off from feeling.  That’s what’s sad to me,” and she stares in a lingering way, making clear the unspoken conclusion to the sentence: That’s what’s sad to me—assholes like you.
            She’s the one with the key to the church, and she’s running late now, at seven-thirty, because five-fifteen was the only time her doctor could squeeze her in, and when they work that hard to squeeze you in, it isn’t because they’re anxious to give you good news.  So she leaves her office early to drive all the way out to the doctor in Reston—rush hour traffic is hell times two—and once she gets there, she parks the car and sits in it, hands staying dutifully on the wheel in the proper position.  …  

Friday, November 1, 2013

How to Order a Story Collection

Laura van den Berg offers some good advice about how to think about ordering a short story collection in this Glimmer Train essay:

With so much thematic overlap, there can be a very fine line between "coherence" and "redundancy," and so I tried to make sure each story was turning over a slightly different kind of stone. I made lists of all the first and last lines to help determine the arrangement.  

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Advice for Self-Publishers

An interesting discussion about self-publishing, from Poets & Writer’s magazine:

Coming from a self-published author’s point of view, there’s the terrifying BookScan that traditionally published authors must contend with. To be blunt, if you’re not selling the way a publishing house wants you to, you’re out. Even great writers are under the gun. It’s all about profit-and-loss margins. As I discuss in my self-publishing guide, if you want to be a successful self-published or traditionally published author in today’s market, your mind-set should be: “It’s all about the money, honey.” You have to be the businessperson and the author. Your job is to write a great book and sell it. And if you’re a self-published author, it’s heightened big-time.

You’ll have to buy the magazine (Nov/Dec 2013) to get the better (IMHO) article about various options for self-publishers.  Of course, if you’re thinking about self-publishing, go get your hands on this whole issue, which is devoted to the industry:

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Writing Stories, Writing Novels: What's the Diff?

Well, a lot actually—and it’s not just “more pages.”  Find out more at my upcoming talk/discussion/Q&A in Leesburg, Virginia, on November 1.  Here are the details:

Making the 300-Page Leap

While there are obvious similarities inherent to all good writing—lively characters doing interesting things, as told through vivid language—both in the process and the finished product, novels and short stories have fundamental differences.  Learn more about how to make this 300-page leap in your own work!

Friday, November 1, 2013
7:30 PM - 9:30 PM
Leesburg Town Hall
(Lower Level Meeting Room)
25 West Market Street
Leesburg, VA 20176
$6 ($4 for Writer's Center members and residents of Leesburg)
More info: 301-654-8664 or

Monday, October 14, 2013

Five Essentials of Good Writing

I’ll be away from blogging for the next week, but in the mean time, here’s a great piece by Lee Martin’s blog “The Least You Need to Know” about five essentials of good writing, applicable to fiction and non-fiction writers:

A teacher of mine used to say that a good short story led to a moment of surprise, which he defined as “more truth than we think we have a right to know.” The same holds true for a good piece of nonfiction. As we read, we participate in the writer’s attempt to find what he or she didn’t know when first coming to the page. Narrative is the art of constructing visual images, scenes if you will, that make a dream world for the readers and that require those readers’ participation in the intellectual and emotional life of the story. A good story, then, dramatizes, explores, illuminates. Characters move through time and space, and are profoundly changed because of the journey. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Advice for MFA Applicants

Are you thinking about applying to an MFA program?  I’ve recently come across some good links offering smart advice for applicants, so read on:

Brian Evenson Gives Advice for Future MFA Applicants (Thank you, Matt, for this link.)

4. Be honest, but “we’re dating and getting serious” honest rather than either “First date honest” or “Now that you’ve proposed, here’s all the stuff you need to know about me (like the fact that I killed my first wife)” honest. You can and should talk about your struggles and successes and trials and etc., but in moderation.

1) What are MFA programs looking for in a portfolio? What should I submit?Submit your best work. That being said, if you want to be safe, you can choose to believe this nugget of truth: admission committees are looking for a sense of completion in an applicant’s portfolio. When I was a kid learning jazz  piano for the first time, my tutor insisted that I play song straight with careful attention to each and every note’s value. She reasoned that, once I could prove myself as capable of playing the song as-is, I could jazz it up to my heart’s content. It’s the same idea here. While it might be really awesome to submit your 2nd person stream of consciousness vignette novella written from the perspective of a pack of zombie wolfhounds, it also might be a good idea to just write two conventional 10-15 page short story. Poets, do the opposite; write your poetry in a 2nd person stream of consciousness discordant vignettes written from the perspective of a pack of zombie wolfhounds.

And, well, my own (always excellent!) advice:  Do Writers Need an MFA?

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

And remember, we always welcome your application at the Converse low-res MFA where I teach. Details here.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Milestone: Redux Publishes 100th Piece!

Now entering its third year, Redux, the online magazine I founded/edit, has just published its 100th writer!  That translates to more than 100 stories, essays, and poems that have been previously published in literary journals that are now available on the internet, finding a new audience online…so important in these “end of paper” times we live in.

Of course I love everything selected for Redux, whether it was chosen by me personally or by one of our fine advisory editors*, but I did save an extra-amazing essay to appear as lucky number one hundred:  “Your Hand Is My Hand” by Catherine Chung, which was first published in The Journal in 2007.  It is, the author noted on Facebook when sharing the link, “the first piece I ever published, and the one closest to my heart.”

It’s a gorgeous essay, about love and cancer and hope and vulnerability and family; you may need a box of tissues nearby as you read: 

About a month ago I had a tumor excised from my left breast.  The tumor was 3.3 cm in diameter, roughly the size of a ping pong ball, and was located under my left nipple. When it first appeared a year and a half ago, I told it, “You can stay so long as you respect the balance.” But in its last months it had spurned the balance and grown, rising to the surface so that it was visible: an alien marking out its territory. It started to develop what felt like appendages. It began to pull my nipple back into my breast, so that the skin around it puckered and collapsed.

*Special thanks to our hard-working and super-smart advisory editors: Deborah Ager, Marlin Barton, Joseph M. Schuster, and Steve Ello.  I couldn’t do it without you!

And there are still a few more days left in our open reading period, if you’d like to send in a previously published story/essay/poem for consideration.  Here are the submission guidelines.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Link Corral: Breaking Bad, Indie Publishers, First Book Writer-in-Residence Opportunity in NYC

I’m still mourning the end of Breaking Bad.  Here’s a comprehensive and amusing video “In Memoriam” of all the characters who were killed during the series. (Thanks to Sarah for the link.)

Here’s a wonderful (but not comprehensive) list of indie publishers putting out strong work, worthy of our support.  These are also good markets for your own writing…there’s definitely more to life than New York publishing! (Thanks for the link, Charlotte.)

Here’s a specialized but amazing opportunity for a writer with a first book contract to get 3 free weeks in New York City to work on that book, courtesy of the Standard Hotel and The Paris Review.  Applications due November 1.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The End of the Line for Walter White

Of course it’s the end of the line for Walter White because Breaking Bad is over.  So, no, that wasn’t a spoiler.  But, if you don’t want to hear about the finale then STOP READING NOW (though, really, how you won’t find out somehow, somewhere, someday is beyond me).  And I’m assuming some familiarity with the show, so if you’re not interested in this TV show used in a discussion of story arc, probably also stop reading now, though without the capital letters.

I thought this was one of TV’s most satisfying series finales.  It was not as transcendent as the end to Six Feet Under, and it wasn’t as provocative as the end to The Sopranos, and though I guess time will tell, it wasn’t as so-all-wrong-seeming-at-the-time-while-ending-up-so-exactly-right as the end of Seinfeld.  But it was exactly and perfectly satisfying, and I think Vince Gilligan and the writers managed this miraculous feat a few different ways.

First, I do think that being satisfying to their audience was an important goal they had established for themselves. And what a diverse audience to work with, as this show attracted a number of different viewers:  the literary types, the moral justice types, the logical and science geek type, the shoot ‘em up types.  How could one storyline possibly reach all these constituencies? (If you need to know, I’m a literary type!) Early on, Gilligan said that he wasn’t leaving an open-ended ending; as a true writer, he wanted control over the story and its universe.  And once the show started taking off, it seemed to me to be very fan friendly, with contests and a big presence on social media and lots of affable interviews with the actors and Gilligan and a tremendous promotional effort on social media. I know most shows do this nowadays, but that is a change from the environment the shows I previously mentioned operated in.  So, to me, this seemed like a show that knew its fans wanted to emerge feeling that they had traveled a complete journey.

And here, with this ending that wrapped up all loose ends with a logic that any science geek, process-oriented type could admire: the money, the revenge, the freedom delivered with a gun attached to a Radio Shack-like gadget and a remote control one could imagine putting together in the garage following a diagram in Wired magazine (not me, but one).  Moral justice was delivered: while everyone in the show did Very Bad Things (except for Walt Junior), the truly bad were punished, and the less bad were able to be set free in a way that gave us glimmers of hope for the days and years ahead.  I’m not a shoot ‘em up type, but one could hardly expect a bigger, tenser, more nail-biting blood bath of release.  (How’s he going to grab that remote off the pool table!!!!!)

And then the literary types, the ones who definitely admire all the above elements, but who perhaps care primarily about character and story arc and Chekhov’s metaphorical gun over the fireplace.  The ones who write stories and know just how hard it is to get to that perfect ending that is surprising yet inevitable.  What I admired most along these lines is how the elements that were in play early on came back here at the end:  there are many example, but one that was especially notable last night, is Lydia.  Lydia’s incessant fussiness and rigidity which had seemed like an amusing tic became the way that we could believe Walt would know how and where and when to find her and how, precisely, to cause her demise…with her constant request for Stevia and the ricin cigarette that had been set up already (and used) in a previous season and which, cleverly, the writers reminded us about in the beginning of this season with that return trip to the house when Walt snags it from the house, signaling to the audience that “something” will happen to it but leaving us in suspense as to what, exactly, that will be.  (That’s the Alfred Hitchcock theory of suspense executed perfectly, by the way.) 

All along, from the very first episode, Walt has been “doing this for his family,” and so we know that the family and this very basic element of motivation must come back in the end—as it does—and yet there must be a change, and there is:  he IS doing it for his family, as he finally finds the way to get the drug money to his family to get them to accept it…and yet, he finally admits what we’ve seen all along:  he is also doing it for  himself.  “I liked it,” he admits in a final bit of honestly and self-awareness. Obviously, we knew that the big relationship here, between Walt as the father figure and Jesse as the son, had to come into play at the end, and it does…but also as a shift, as Jesse finally does not do what Walt wants him to, and yet as Walt saves Jesse one last time.  There are a dozen examples of things returning full circle, including the biggest:  from the beginning, with the diagnosis of cancer, we were promised that Walt would die, and he does.

But in the end, the very end, we see Walt in the lab: exactly where he started, with his love for chemistry, with the science of it all.  That, too, is why he did what he did: because he was a scientist.  Because he was good at it.  Science is about science, not moral judgments.  That’s an essential part of Walt’s character from the beginning, tucked away, because people don’t normally think of scientists as amoral.  His bloody hand sweeps over the tank, leaving a W, as Steve pointed out:  Remember my name.  And here, we think back to the “Heisenberg” spray-painted on the wall of the abandoned house which we saw at the beginning of this season.  No, no…Walt was Walt all along.

And that’s why this show was so satisfying to me, as a viewer and a literary type, because it wrapped up the questions in a believable-enough, concrete way while offering a certain moral ambiguity and a reminder to all of us: that we are Walter White.  What makes Walt finally leave New Hampshire?  His son hates him, Walt thinks it’s all been for nothing, he’s called the DEA, and then he sees Gretchen telling the TV audience that Walter White, that sweet man, is gone.  That’s the exact moment.  Sure, being reminded of Gray Matter (set up in season one) gives him the idea of how to move the money to his family, but also, this moment reminds him that Walter White, actually, is NOT gone:  this man is not, in the end, ONLY Walter White OR Heisenberg.  He is both, he is Walter White AND Heisenberg.  We are both.  We make the choice.

We cry when he places his hands on Holly’s sleeping head.  We cheer when his clever gun device mows down the Nazis.  All of us have within us that complexity, that yin and yang of good and evil.  We would do it for our family.  And we would like it.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Two at the Most: Barmini in DC

Sheesh, it looks as though there hasn’t been any drinking going on around here…which is so not the case! Unfortunately, our regular “Two at the Most” columnist—aka husband Steve Ello—has been unable to write up a column for a while, so I’m commandeering his slot because I found a sleek new bar in the Penn Quarter area of DC that I must spread the word about:  Barmini.

It’s a project of the famous and fabulous chef Jose Andres (who started out with one of my favorite go-to DC restaurants, Jaleo, and now runs a food empire) and the usual high standards are present:  kind greeting despite our entering the wrong door, gracious hostess leading us to the right place, no reservation but snagging us a space for us at the bar, a friendly and smart bartender who is able to juggle drink recommendations and allergy concerns and come up with perfect solutions for both!

The interior is white, kind of like a laboratory (which is appropriate, as it bills itself as a cocktail lab), and kind of like what I imagine 1960s London to have looked like, as if Twiggy might stroll in.  Nevertheless, there’s a sense of whimsy with a cactus-shaped couch, a wall lined with porcelain hands (I think?? I didn’t touch) holding limes and lemons, and a scary-at-my-age-now hanging basket for a chair.  I think I was happy to be at the bar, surrounded by bottles and droppers and vases of fresh herbs and whatever else might be needed at this Potions Class of mixology. (See the link to photos below.)

There are 100 drinks on the menu.  That’s what I read online; I didn’t count.  Also, this figure doesn’t include the fact that they’re quite willing—and excited—to mix something off-menu…a conversation about mescal led to a woman seated nearby getting a tall concoction that made me drool and long for one more.  (But, remember our motto:  Two at the most!)  Note for next time: when I asked the bartender what her favorite drink was, she mentioned the whiskey sour.

I was feeling autumn nipping at my heels, so I wanted a drink with rye, and the Brooklyn Cocktail was recommended:  Overholt rye, vermouth, maraschino, and what I remember as amer picon (I need to take better notes, or, actually, notes).  It was exactly what I wanted, crisp and spicy, assertive while staying friendly, all the way down to the brandied cherry at the bottom on the (beautiful!) glass…I knew I was in a good spot just from a quick survey of the wide selection of vintage (or vintage-inspired) glassware, including some pilsner glasses with colorful decks of cards printed along the side.

My friend ordered a drink with a name I can’t type because I’m too much of a tech-idiot to know how to produce a tilde sign on my keyboard—so imagine the letter N with one of those squigglies on top.  Anyway, a mix of cucumber vodka, tomato water, ginger syrup, lime, garnished with cucumbers, shaken into a lovely froth.

I couldn’t resist the lure of a Rusty Nail with a float of gently whipped cream…I’m not sure why.  I like the Rusty Nail fine on its own (that blend of scotch and Drambuie is magical!)—and while the drink was gorgeous (and that calcium in the cream is good for my bones!), a Rusty Nail probably didn’t need the addition of cream.  Nevertheless, I drank it all.

As for bar food, I had one of the most amazing grilled cheese sandwiches ever conceived of, with that perfect crusty, butter sheen to the brioche (I think) bread and a mix of four cheeses: blue, cheddar, goat, and something else that was gooey. My only complaint would be that I could probably eat a dozen of these sandwiches and still want more.  Oh, so-so-SO yummy!  And my friend had some excellent Spanish ham as well as a small burger that made her look for new superlatives…apparently, mixing ground beef with bone marrow is a Very Good Idea.  Just like everything about this place:  it’s the exact place I would design for myself if I were 1000x smarter than I am.

Reservations are recommended, but if you must walk in, go on a slow Tuesday as we did.  You will be warmly welcomed and be hard-pressed to tear yourself away.

Here are some great pictures of the interior.
Here’s a link to the menu, though I think there have been a few tweaks.
Here is the official website, with a link for reservations.

And just because I like this photograph...note the Brooklyn Cocktail in reach!!


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