Monday, April 29, 2013

Thomas Wolfe's Beautiful Deathbed Letter to Maxwell Perkins

This has to be one of the most moving letters ever written, the letter Thomas Wolfe wrote to Maxwell Perkins on his deathbed, by hand, against doctor’s orders, after Wolfe had had a falling out with Perkins and Scribners and had moved to another publisher, though Perkins remained loyal to Wolfe and was the literary executor of his estate:

August 12, 1938

Dear Max:

I’m sneaking this against orders—but “I’ve got a hunch”—and I wanted to write these words to you.

I’ve made a long voyage and been to a strange country, and I’ve seen the dark man very close; and I don’t think I was too much afraid of him, but so much of mortality still clings to me—I wanted most desperately to live and still do, and I thought about you all 1000 times, and wanted to see you all again, and there was the impossible anguish and regret of all the work I had not done, of all the work I had to do—and I know now I’m just a grain of dust, and I feel as if a great window has been opened on life I did not know about before—and if I come through this, I hope to God I am a better man, and in some strange way I can’t explain I know I am a deeper and a wiser one—If I get on my feet and get out of here, it will be months before I head back, but if I get on my feet, I’ll come back.

—Whatever happens—I had this “hunch” and wanted to write you and tell you, no matter what happens or has happened, I shall always think of you and feel about you the way it was that 4th of July day 3 yrs. ago when you met me at the boat, and we went out on the café on the river and had a drink and later went on top of the tall building and all the strangeness and the glory and the power of life and of the city was below—

Yours always,

(from Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell E. Perkins selected and edited by John Hall Wheelock)

Saturday, April 27, 2013

"Seeing, Hearing, and Reading": Maxwell Perkins on How to Write

Here’s some excellent writing advice via Maxwell Perkins, gleaned from Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell E. Perkins, selected and edited by John Hall Wheelock:

The editor notes that this letter was written to a “writer of distinction” who had to stop working for a while and take a rest for health reasons.

March 11, 1941
Dear ---:
…And turning things over in your mind, and reflecting upon them and all, is something that a writer ought to have to do in quiet circumstances once in a while. That is one of the troubles with writers today, that they cannot get a chance, or cannot endure to do this. Galsworthy, who never over-rated himself as a writer, but was one of great note in fact, always said that the most fruitful thing for a writer to do was quiet brooding….
Being bitter about all the too-many accomplishments of your Facebook friends doesn’t count as brooding!

May 17, 1945

Dear Mr. Mulliken [a young man who was in the service at the time and wrote asking for career advice]:

…I think, in truth, that the best writing of all is done long after the events it is concerned with, when they have been digested and reflected upon unconsciously, and the writer has completely realized them in himself….Long ago I went to visit Ernest Hemingway, after he had been a couple of years in Key West. We went fishing every day in those many-colored waters, and then also in the deep blue Gulf Stream. It was all completely new to me, and wonderfully interesting—there was so much to know that nobody would ever have suspected, about even fishing.  I said to Hemingway, “Why don’t you write about all this?” and he said, “I will in time, but I couldn’t do it yet,” and seeing I did not get his meaning, he pointed to a pelican that was clumsily flapping along, and said, “See that pelican? I don’t know yet what his part is in the scheme of things.”  He did know factually in his head, but he meant that it all had to become so deeply familiar that you knew it emotionally, as if by instinct, and that only came after a long time, and through long unconscious reflection….
(It would be interesting to see if there's a pelican in The Old Man and the Sea, just for kicks.)

June 22, 1945
Dear Jim [another young man in the service who wrote for career advice]:
…You see plenty, and you hear plenty, and that is much more important even than reading. You remember how when Swift was a young man he would go to the inns on the highways and sit in the bars and listen to the teamsters and coachmen talk. He never used the language that he heard—and I suppose he really listened just from interest anyhow—but the rhythm, the tempo of living speech is in the talk of the regular run of people. And so, though you can’t write as you wish now, you are probably going unconsciously through the best education you could have.  Seeing, hearing, and reading….
And, to quote the master:

January 4, 1946

Dear Jim [the same man as above]:

I delayed answering your letter because I wanted to quote from Scott Fitzgerald, and it took me a long time to find the paragraph:

“So many writers, Conrad for instance, have been aided by being brought up in a métier utterly unrelated to literature. It gives an abundance of material and, more important, an attitude from which to view the world. So much writing nowadays suffers both from lack of an attitude and from sheer lack of any material, save what is accumulated in a purely social life.” …
Okay, seriously…no more Facebook today for any of us!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Nebraska Update #2

A hodge-podge of things I’ve done/thought/seen/ate during the recent days of my ongoing residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska City:

--I finally had a runza, a Nebraska specialty that, despite the fast-food appearance of the Runza mini-chain of restaurants, is based on an old-time recipe.  Dough filled with seasoned ground beef and cheese and jalapenos…pretty darn good!  (The original, which I will have to return to try, is ground beef and cabbage.) Also, who can argue with the brilliance of “frings,” a mixture of French fries and onion rings?

--A fun night around the firepit...on one of the few non-rainy, non-cold nights.  Poets can build lovely fires.

--Mostly I’m doing simple cooking for myself, and in this back-to-basics mode, I’m being reminded that perfection of taste can be humble.  One night I had one of the best baked potatoes of my life—cooked exactly the way I like it by which I mean horribly overdone so the skin is a lovely crust with a slab of butter—and for lunch yesterday, the grilled cheese sandwich was elegantly gooey and delightfully buttery.  ( Maybe at this rate I WILL go through the four sticks of butter I bought at the store?)

--The Wheel is a fabulous bar with a good mix of leave-you-alone and so-are-you-from-around-here conversation.  Thursdays are dollar beer nights (in DC, I don’t even think you’re allowed to utter the word “beer” without paying a buck), and I had some fried jalapeno cheese balls that were so satisfying that I find myself dreaming of them.  (This was not on Wellness Wednesday, the day I eat hyper-healthfully!) I don’t really like the phrase “dive bar” because it sounds sort of condescending to me, but if you’re a fan of that word and of the concept, you need to get yourself to The Wheel.  Frankly, though, what I love most about The Wheel is meeting people from around town and getting a glimpse into Nebraska City life.

--I got to hold IN MY OWN HAND a letter written by TOLSTOY—his own hand!—to William Jennings Bryan.  Some Nebraska friends were going through the scary boxes at the back of the scary corner of the scary area where all the scary ancient ancestral clutter had accumulated, and lo and behold!  Tolstoy!  Pretty cool, I must say. And very casual…we were sipping drinks as we passed the letter around.

--I saw wagon traces from a section of the Oregon Trail.

--Nebraska City has a public charging station for electric cars.  Okay, one car at a time, so not cars, but still…I’m impressed. Will I be seeing Ed Begley Jr. at The Wheel one of these Thursdays?

--I’m in love with the Missouri River.  I try every day to walk down to the industrial area where I can stand at the river’s edge and watch the currents and ripples and the water’s fast, flat flow.  On the other side of the river is Iowa—not at all far away.  In fact, there’s a plaque at the post office about slaves who escaped over to Iowa at that point of the river.  The town was once a major port and did a big business in the freighter industry in the 1800s, provisioning wagon trains. Every day when I stare at that river I feel like I’m somewhere different.

--Train whistles in the dark soothe me. The days and night are criss-crossed with train whistles, some lonely, some companionable, each urgent…I like to think of them as I write.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Rejection Letters by Maxwell Perkins

What’s it like to be rejected by legendary Scribners editor Maxwell Perkins?  Here are two examples, both pretty cutting under that veneer…and both offering excellent advice on writing, relevant still today.

[Note: the redacted names and titles are due to the book’s editor, not me; I’m reading Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell E. Perkins, edited by John Hall Wheelock, published (by Scribners,natch!) in 1950. I suspect later editions of the letters contained the recipients’ names.]

Jan. 10, 1936
Dear —:
            It is hard to be obliged to tell you that “----”does not seem to us acceptable for publication. The fact that we also feel that it is now unlikely that it can be made acceptable compels us to speak plainly about it.
            We ought to tell you at the outset that we think you are both creating and writing too hurriedly, which is not fair to your considerable talent.  Your novel seems to us to show the consequences of this in both conception and execution.  We were not disturbed by faults apparent in your original rough draft of the first half, because you told us that it was the product of the time you could spare from income-bringing writing in the course of several weeks only, and we felt that they would be taken care of in a more leisurely rewriting. But the faults, we think, are still there, in the second half of the story as well—which we now read for the first time.
            The story still seems superimposed upon its background , and not in any real sense to grow out of it.  Many characters are introduced who do not touch the story.  It is as if you had carefully gone over the local newspaper files of the [eighteen] eighties, made copious notes, and used this background material valiantly, with the result that much of it seems dragged in, and awkwardly handled. Very often, too, your exposition is disproportionate: things really important to the story are set forth briefly and indirectly , whereas some of the local and political detail, of no real consequence in the novel as such, is given the emphasis of exposition by dialogue.
            The fact that we were willing to pay you an advance, provisional upon acceptance, is evidence enough that we believed in your talent. Empathetically, we still do. But we apparently over-estimated your faculty for self-criticism. It seems to us now that you must have written this book when you were only half ready to begin it.
            If you were to rewrite it now, from stem to stern, we don’t think that it would come to life, even though you might succeed in integrating story and background more effectively.  Your right course—unless we are wrong in our opinion of this manuscript—seems to us to be to put it aside, take up one of the other novels in the plan you outlined to us, and then write this entirely anew a few years from now.  If you write another novel, we believe that you ought to put it away, once you have finished it, until the impulse that led you through it has gone quite cold; then take it up again and see if you are ready yourself to accept it.
            All of this gives you brutally less than your due; you have created some sympathetic characters, and done much effective writing.  But we think that your rapid writing for income has got you into an attitude toward your material that you will have to lose….A novel of this kind should come out of long reflection upon the characters and upon the scene, so that the background and the people and the events all, in the end, become part of a true unit. It is a harder kind of novel to do quickly, perhaps, than any other. …

March 6, 1936

Dear —:
            I have read over your “----” several times. I do not think it is successful, but it is very hard to explain to you why, except that it has the technical disadvantage of being told by a character within the story. That always somewhat diminishes the vividness and sense of actuality by removing the reader further from the things recounted. But it is, of course, a method that has been followed by the best writers.* Otherwise, I think the story failed mostly in not giving the reader a keen enough sense of the reality of what happened, so that he is moved in reading.  This has nothing to do with technique, or structure, or anything of the kind, but only in the ability of a writer to feel with intensity himself, and then so express himself as to make the reader feel in that way too.  If this is the case, I do not know of any way of telling a writer how to get the result. Some men can do it by nature, even though in every technical way they write badly. It has been learned by many, too, who did not seem to have it at first, but they had to teach that to themselves entirely, for it is not at all a technical matter.  Many of the very best writers of narrative, such as history, etc., have been unable to succeed with fiction. You write very well, but this story is not successful, in spite of that.
            It is also true that it is hardly the material for a short story, from an editor’s standpoint, but that has nothing to do with its intrinsic interest.

Ever sincerely yours,

*The Great Gatsby, perchance, Maxwell?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Maxwell Perkins: Great Guy, But He Didn't Think Much of Women and Huck Finn

Okay, my incendiary headline has done the trick and gotten your attention!

As I mentioned, I’ve moved on from Robert Lowell and legendary literary Boston to literary legends: I’m about a third of the way through Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell E. Perkins, selected and edited by John Hall Wheelock.  It’s one of those cool, old paperback Scribners editions with the gray cover and green and white rectangles that I love, published in 1950, so kind of hot off the presses, since Perkins died in 1947.

There are some frustrations, including a bad habit of redacting the titles of the books that (apparently) readers have written in to complain about—nasty language, immoral behavior, the general nastiness of life!—in the letters Perkins writes back to defend the author, Scribners, and writing/art in general.  I guess trolls were around before the internet age.

And I was taken aback by this snippet, early on, which sort of crushed my personal fantasies of having lived in another age and been discovered by Perkins:

March 31,1924
To Edward Bok:
…You have practically confessed, I think in The Americanization [of Edward Bok], or in one way or another, to a rather low opinion of woman (an opinion to which I have no objection, since I share it) but this would make still more interesting a chapter by you upon “Women who have impressed me.”  Of course, you have talked about various distinguished women whom you have met, but mostly you have associated with men and have written about them.  Could you not make a fine chapter on remarkable women you have known? I have known some extraordinary ones in vitality and will power and intellect too.  I think this would have a tendency to round out this book, and to once more bring out your views in these concrete terms….
[Oh, so sorry, Edward Bok, that the book Perkins is writing about, Twice Thirty, seems to be no longer in print…!  Though I confess to being impressed that Bok is the one who coined the word “living room.”  And I should note that Perkins does champion female authors, including (so far) Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Caroline Gordon. I'll imagine he was just trying to establish some ground so that Bok would listen to the editorial suggestion.]

It’s quite humbling to see that many of the books Perkins is writing about are ones I’ve never heard of.  It wasn’t all Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Wolfe…Steeplejack by James Huneker seemed to be a big deal.  And Perkins’ acumen was not infallible:

December 5, 1924
To Will James [suggesting what type of book to write for a follow-up to Cowboys North and South]:  
…Really, the book I have in mind—for unsatisfactory as comparisons are, one can never altogether avoid them—is “Huckleberry Finn.”  There was very little plot to it, you probably remember.  Its great interest was simply in the incidents and scenes of the trip on a raft down the Mississippi, told in the language of a boy.  Of course, “Huckleberry Finn” is primarily a boy’s book and it would be better if what you would do were not altogether that…
It’s also interesting how often the word “sales” comes up—and Perkins did start at Scribners in the advertising department—but it’s instructional that during this “golden age” of publishing, there was always much concern about how the book would sell and the various pressures of the industry:

June 3, 1930
To Thomas Wolfe:
…Everything is much as usual here except that the fiction market, which was bad enough as things were , has been rendered still worse by the Doubleday announcement that they are to publish novels at one dollar.  I am glad you worked hard  and we were able to get out “Look Homeward Angel” before this collapse came….
More to come…I haven’t even yet mentioned The Great Gatsby!!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Anne Sexton + Elizabeth Bishop = PoBiz

I’ve moved on to a new book, the letters of Maxwell Perkins—and I’m sure some snippets from that will find their way here—but I have to leave with a little bit more from  With Robert Lowell and His Circle (by Kathleen Spivack, who may, by this point, think I’m stalking her!):

Here’s what happened the only time (assumes the author) that Anne Sexton and Elizabeth Bishop met.  Spivack, friends with both women, was put into the role of organizer/negotiator:

  “I’m shy,” each protested.  Well, that was only partially true, as I watched the prima donna aspects of each poet surface.  Finally, a restaurant was agreed upon, a time and a date.  There were, of course, several cancellations and postponements.  Also, each poet insisted I pick her up and accompany her.  Anne was afraid to meet Elizabeth Bishop because Lowell had touted her as the best woman poet in America, and because Anne admired Bishop’s work so much.  But Elizabeth was afraid to meet Anne because she feared that Anne would be “confessional,” and she was repelled and appalled by what she considered Anne’s raw and sexual outpourings, and because of Anne’s openness in writing about her breakdowns, a topic Elizabeth feared and about which she could never bring herself to write directly.

However, Lois Ames [a friend] agreed to serve as Anne’s second, to pick her up and bring her into Cambridge to the Iruna, a Spanish restaurant where we would all meet.  After I had met Elizabeth Bishop in her apartment and we had played a rousing set of Ping-Pong games, the four of us actually managed to sit down at a restaurant table.  I waited for great words of literature to fly about my ears.  Here were my favorite women poets meeting.  What a wonderful conversation would ensue, I thought.

“Tell me, Anne,” Elizabeth leaned over, “How much money do you get for a reading nowadays?”  “At least a thousand,” was Anne’s immediate answer.  And the two poets were off, talking about contracts and money and publishers who had or hadn’t done them wrong.  Lois and I sat there amazed.  If we had thought one word about poetic process was to be exchanged, we were mistaken.  The two women talked about business with relish all through lunch until the dessert course, when Anne dramatically turned to Lois and exclaimed, “Lois, did I ever tell you much it hurt, having my babies?” Now it was Anne and Lois’s turn to talk, while Elizabeth Bishop and I sat silent, as Anne and Lois outdid themselves on each gory, painful detail of their various childbirths. As I walked Elizabeth back home, she was thoughtfully silent. “Well, really,” she said at the door, dismissing the whole encounter.  As far as I know, the women never saw each other again.
If you’re lucky enough to be a Converse MFA student who has been following this series of posts, you should know that our own Richard Tillinghast is quoted in the book and thanked in the acknowledgments…and I’m pretty sure we can convince him at the summer residency to share a few of his own Robert Lowell/literary Boston/back in the day stories!

Speaking of Robert Lowell, here’s a poem that I like a lot, from Life Studies.  The last four lines are absolutely killer:  “Sailing Home from Rapallo.”

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Anne Sexton Spent Her Grant Money on a Swimming Pool: Here's Why

There was some interest yesterday about Anne Sexton spending grant money to put in a swimming pool, so I thought I'd excerpt that part of the book (With Robert Lowell and His Circle, by Kathleen Spivack).  I only have 40 pages left, and I'm really going to be sad when I'm done!

“Anne had used her fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute of Independent Study (given at least partially to women on the basis of need) to build herself an outdoor swimming pool. This fact did not please the worthy ladies of Radcliffe!  Nevertheless, that swimming pool gave Anne a great deal of pleasure, as well as the frequent presence of friends. At the first faintly warmish days of spring, Anne moved her visitors outside under the weak New England sunlight, sheaves of paper around us, books open to thrilling lines of poetry.  It was cold, but we dove into the chilly water, pushing aside the dead leaves and new pollen that floated on the surface.

“I remember swimming nude in the pool, looking at trees, and drinking Anne’s newest drink discovery, Champale, giggling over vague poetic jokes.  Or drying off, sitting in the sun, reading each other’s poems.  Maxine Kumin and her children would arrive.  Maxine dove into the pool, cool, competent, and graceful.  Anne, on Thorzine, would move a bit into the shade.  The phone rang and was dragged outside.  Anne’s children came home from school.  The Dalamation dragged its puppies outside.  Figures were commented on: hips and waists. I had a baby. Lois got her divorce.  Maxine’s daughter entered Radcliffe.  Anne’s children grew up.  Poems were shared and magazines passed around.  We wrote and wrote and read and read and revised and wrote.  We read aloud to each other.  Steam rose from the pool; the light grew thin; the leaves fell.  And we swam until late October…”

I'm going to file that under "Writing Tips"....  Just a thought, new Guggenheim Fellows!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Anne Sexton on Rejection

More tidbits from Kathleen Spivack’s wonderful memoir, With Robert Lowell and His Circle (truly, reading this book is like sitting next to the best conversationalist possible at Bread Loaf!):

It was commonly thought that Anne Sexton had rushed into print, experiencing no difficulty in getting published once her first brilliant poems had been created.  This was untrue.  In fact, Anne had tried to publish consistently for several years before the acceptance of her first manuscript.  The first time I went to see her, she pulled out masses of rejection slips from her file drawers and waved them in front of me, laughing.  She had two file cabinets full of magazine rejections.  Some were printed rejection forms; others, nasty letters. It was somehow comforting to see her fling them about, to know that the struggle to publish was a common one and that everyone got rejected.

Anne actually seemed to enjoy the process of sending out material.  She had envelopes addressed to the magazines she favored, and when her poems came back in the mail, she immediately transferred them to new envelopes and sent them right out again.  She insisted I do this too. She never condescended to me, or acted as if my poems were not worth being published.  We were conspirators together against a harsh anti-poetic world, she seemed to imply.  Our poems would prevail.  “Don’t let the bastards get you!”

She liked to read me her rejection mail.  She’d have it out on her desk, ready to read, when I walked into her house for lunch.  “Oh Kathy,” she would exclaim.  “Listen to this!” She’d roll her eyes heavenward, recite the note dramatically, and then stuff it away in a file drawer, only to find another one to read.  “You see,” she would say to me throatily, “You just have to keep trying.”  Then she’d pause.  “The bastards…,” she added.  A dramatic sigh.  She’d stub out her cigarette, light another, lean her head back, exhale.  “Don’t let the bastards win, Kathy! Don’t ever forget it.  Promise me.”
In other interesting news, apparently Anne Sexton spent grant money putting in a swimming pool at her house, but this is where she wrote/entertained/lived her whole life, poolside, and there is something just so forgivably glamorous about that image of her hanging out at the pool surrounded by pages of poems.  And maybe everyone else knew this, but I didn’t:  Elizabeth Bishop regualarly wore tight leather pants around the house and loved to play Ping-Pong.

Ah, poets…the life of every worthwhile party!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Sylvia Plath Getting Workshopped

I’m reading Kathleen Spivack’s With Robert Lowell and His Circle, an impressionistic memoir of the group orbiting poet Robert Lowell, and right now I’m at the part talking about what it was like to be in his legendary poetry classes back in the late 1950s-early 1960s in Boston. 

Here are a few tidbits:

While Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were both in the same class (imagine!), Lowell didn’t really see Sylvia as being the star; Anne was:

I can still recall his somewhat nasal Southern-Virginian-New England voice, oddly pitched, as if starting to ask a question, saying to Sylvia and to the class, “This poem [“Sow”] is perfect, almost.” A slight breath-gasp, nasal and outward, as if clearing his sinuses silently, “There really is not much to say.”  A kindly but bewildered look.  Long, struggling silence.  Lowell looks down at the poem, brow furrowed. The class waits.  Sylvia, in a cardigan, does not move.  She listens.  “It appears finished.”  Long silence.  Lowell looks agonized, but then he always does.  Anne [Sexton] fidgets.  Realizing that her arms draped with charm bracelets are making noise, she stops. Sylvia leans forward, dutiful, expressionless, intense, intelligent.

“But.  I don’t know.  There’s something about it….”  Lowell’s nasal voice trails off, helplessly.  “Does anyone else want to say anything about this poem?”  No one apparently wants to say anything.  We are all too intimidated. …  There is the almost inaudible sound of Lowell’s nasal breathing.  He is thinking.  Everyone tries to refrain from saying something stupid.  The room gets darker.  Sylvia does not move, watching.  “I’m sure this will be published,” Lowell comments to her offhandedly, with a sly kind nearsighted glance.  But perhaps the poem already has been published?  No one dares ask.

There is a feeling of unsatisfied poetic process in the room.  The poem is formal and beautifully presented, as is Sylvia herself. Everyone senses that Lowell has damned with faint praise and has managed to sidestep real engagement with the poem. One can’t get beneath the surface of the poems Sylvia brings to class. And yet one can’t define that, or change it, either. There is an air of accepted disappointment, an accepted frustration.

These are the poems that eventually make up the manuscript of her first book, The Colossus. In a quote from Lowell’s writing, he says, “She showed us poems that later, more or less unchanged, went into her first book, The Colossus.  They were somber, formidably expert in stanza structure, and had a flair for alliteration and Massachusetts’s low-tide dolor….Somehow none of it sank very deep into my awareness.  I sensed her abashment and distinction, and never guessed her later appalling and triumphant fulfillment.” [with the poems in Ariel]

Spivack adds:  “[Lowell] was deep in Life Studies, and W.D. Snodgrass as a current favorite poetic role model interested him more.  Sylvia’s formal poetry at the time seemed confining, a path Lowell had already traveled in his earlier work. He expressed his astonishment at the bursting forth of raw emotion in later work, after Sylvia’s death.”

This sounds like the world’s most intimidating workshop FOR SURE, as Spivack writes, “In class Sylvia’s comments on other students’ work could be scathing, as well as full of obscure references.  She managed to suggest that everyone—except herself, of course—had plagiarized poems from dead British or American writers.”

I don’t think that Robert Lowell is held in the same high regard he once was these days (correct me if I’m wrong, poets), but all I know is that I read a couple of his poems yesterday before jumping into my own revising, and my results were better for it, for feeling that immense pressure to be precise.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Nebraska Update #1

I am feeling settled into my little place here, figuring out the best way to prop my feet and balance my computer on my lap without my legs going numb.  I’ve heard about a Nebraska specialty, Runza, which seems to be a bread bowl with a cabbage/burger mix inside--??  I replaced the disgusting sponges in the sink.  I was shown the best place to go to watch the Missouri River roll by.  I woke up as the first train passed in the night, whistle blaring, but mostly slept through the next one.  I drank a Nebraska beer (Eos) and I heard about where to go to get Buds for a dollar on Thursday.  The bagger at the grocery store followed me and my cart outside, and when I said, “Are you following me?” he said, “Yes, ma’am,” and I said, “I really don’t need any help with my groceries,” but he explained that it’s his job to help.  There’s an Arbor Day parade coming up later in the month (Nebraska City is the birthplace of Arbor Day!) that I don’t want to miss. And I have an inside connection I can use to get a tour of the taxidermy museum where, among other things, I hear there are 100 taxidermied chickens displayed in a coop. I’m reading The Receptionist by Janet Groth, a memoir about her life working for The New Yorker for 21 years and liking it a lot—so gossipy!

Also, I’ve been writing and not automatically hating everything.

Life is good.

Friday, April 5, 2013

I-80 Observations

--Ohio seems to have toned down the hyper-vigilant speed traps, leaving North Carolina as the state with the most speed traps, IMHO.


--I love the improvements to the Pennsylvania Turnpike—three lanes! No potholes!—but I kind of miss that adrenaline rush of trucks barreling by an inch from your car through rain and fog, lanes of opposing traffic separated by flimsy posts and steel rope.


--It’s worth stopping a Culver’s for a custard milkshake.


--They still make classic chef’s salads in the Midwest. I should have asked for French dressing or Thousand Island at the Big Boy in Maumee, Ohio.


--The World’s Largest Truckstop—in Iowa—is large but very disappointing. Shouldn’t such a mecca not have gas pumps that are broken and unable to pump without standing there, holding it? Plus, the bathroom was dirty.  Plus, while it was E-Z in, it definitely was NOT E-Z out. I do not recommend stopping there.


--I always wonder about that RV Hall of Fame (in Indiana). What must an RV driver do to be so honored with enshrinement in the Hall of Fame? There were a lot of cars—not RVs!—in the parking lot.


--Ohio’s roads are the flattest and straightest (and the most expensive).


--Illinois has the most peaceful roads—west of Chicago—and they really should be marked for 70, not 65.  The Chicago area is filled with maniacs…more adrenaline.


--My favorite green interstate sign comes after Pittsburgh:


And West”


--A squirrel ran across the interstate in front of my car in Indiana. I’ve never seen such a thing.  There were absolutely no trees around, by the way.


--I don’t care if it is just a Hampton Inn: don’t come to the breakfast bar in pajamas and bare feet.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Heading Off to Nebraska City!

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” 
~Virginia Woolf
I’m thinking about Virginia Woolf at the moment, most particularly A Room of One’s Own, because I am lucky enough to be heading off to a room on my own for the next month, thanks to a residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska City, Nebraska.  I’ll be finalizing one book (fingers crossed!) and perhaps poking around in a new one.  I’ll have time to walk around with my characters in my head and sticky plot problems simmering in my subconscious.  I can spread and pile and sort all my scraps of papers every which way.  I can go to bed whenever I want and wake up whenever I want.  My errands will be few and will seem novel in this new environment.  I can read the stack of books I’ve packed in my car.

There are many things I am grateful for, and tied for the top of my list are my husband for putting up with my absence and the people who start/run/support the valuable spaces artists need.

Also, selfishly, I’m grateful to see that Virginia Woolf also wrote this in A Room of One’s Own:

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” 
Or write well, I’d have to add!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Something to Ponder

The best food for thought comes at unexpected moments. I was walking in my neighborhood yesterday, supposed to be enjoying the brief glimpse of true spring weather, supposed to be pondering my work-in-progress...instead, I was reeling through various to-do lists and (the horror!) sub to-do lists and even sub-sub to-do lists, when out of the corner of my eye, I noticed an etched stone in someone's garden.  I whisked by, but something made me back up and go read what was written:

"Beware the barrenness of a busy life." ~ Socrates

I won't say my life instantly changed. But I will say that the words have been haunting me.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Link Corral: Me-me-me! Experts on the State of Publishing! Brackish Fiction Contest!

First things first…a super-short story of mine that was published in Camera Obscura has now been posted online:

From “Ghost, 1899”

You stand at the edge of the river.

You’re not sure how it happened.  It could have been that rigid knot growing inside your chest that you ignored.  It could have been staring blankly into emptiness or shooting deep into darkness.  It could have been stepping into the street at the wrong moment when the streetcar rattled by. It could have been bad drink at the hotel, or too many, and wandering here, to the edge of the river, and walking forward into the splash, the cold, the black. It could have been your baby. It could have been anything. When you were alive, you thought these details of dying would matter, and now you discover that they don’t. You’re dead. You must now find a way to believe that.


The Washington Post speaks to an array of people at all points of the writing/publishing world, asking for t heir thoughts on what’s going on in this industry rife with change:

From novelist Jennifer Miller:   “My debut novel, “The Year of the Gadfly,” received the kind of reviews that a young novelist dreams of. But with over 60,000 titles published each year, it’s a basic fact that if your book doesn’t achieve “Gone Girl” status within a month or so, then it’s simply gone.

“Which is why I’ve spent the last year fighting to keep my book relevant. I produced a book trailer that featured famous journalists like Brian Williams and Christiane Amanpour. I organized an out-of-pocket three-month book tour last fall, and I invented the Novelade Stand: a lemonade stand for books, in which I set up a sidewalk table with colorful signs, homemade cookies and copies of “Gadfly.”

From Richard Peabody, speaking as a writing teacher:  “One thing hasn’t changed — a solitary writer plays with words in a room somewhere. If you understand that nugget, then you may have a future in this crazy biz.”


Submit!  There’s a fee, but you get a subscription to a great journal…plus, who can resist this prompt?

The Potomac Review announces a flash fiction themed contest:  “Brackish”

--Fresh water and salt water like Chesapeake Bay
--Oil and vinegar
--Chocolate ice cream and fried onions
--Bugs Bunny meets Freddy Krueger

These ideas aren’t prompts, just nudges to your imagination.  The concept behind our theme, Brackish, is to take two things or ideas, like fresh and salt water, that shouldn’t work together or mix well, but do anyway. 

In the spirit of the Potomac Review’s watery origins, we will celebrate this phenomenon by asking talented writers to participate in our first themed writing contest: a flash fiction contest. Contest dates: February 28st—April 5th. Enter online and check the website for further details:

The winner will receive publication in the Potomac Review, a year’s subscription to the Potomac Review, and $1,000!

To enter, submit a compelling piece of flash fiction of up to 1,500 words that combines any two (or more) subjects or genres with at $20 fee per entry. You can pay online via the website. Submissions will be judged by Drue Heinz and Pushcart Prize winner Kirk Nesset. This contest adheres to all CLMP Contest Guidelines.

The Potomac Review is an award winning internationally and nationally known literary magazine, based in the Mid Atlantic, along the Potomac River.


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