Tuesday, July 17, 2018

SILVER GIRL Available at a Stock-Up Price of $9!

Passing along this information from my wonderful publisher, Unnamed Press:

Hunting Party by Agnès Desarthe and Tacky Goblin by T. Sean Steele are both officially out today, which marks 50 books here at Unnamed Press!

To celebrate, we're offering a 50% discount on our website for the next 5 days. Experience the books that made us, and take a chance on something new.

When we think about all of the years of work (from writing to editing to production and publicity) that went into each of our 50 titles and the wonderful authors who made them, it's almost hard to believe. We're going to enjoy this for a little while.

Have a look at our website, where the discount is in full effect, and most books are around $8 each. (INCLUDING SILVER GIRL!!!!!!!!)

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Best Writing Books Ever...according to this writer!

Here are my favorite craft books on writing (in random order). Each came along to me at exactly the right time, and most are either highlighted the hell out of or stickied up. If you’re new to writing and even this curated list feels daunting, I’ll follow with a few quick thoughts on what I think each book is best for. (NOTES: These are not resources for how to publish. Also, because I mostly writing fiction, these skew that way.)

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner 
On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
How Fiction Works by James Wood
Building Fiction by Jesse Lee Kercheval
Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart
On Writing:  A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Negotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood
Vivid and Continuous by John McNally
The Promise of Failure by John McNally
The Half-Known World by Robert Boswell
Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy
Memoir Your Way: Tell Your Story through Writing, Recipes, Quilts, Graphic Novels & More
Crash Course: 52 Essays from Where Writing and Life Collide by Robin Black
The Write Crowd: Literary Citizenship & the Writing Life by Lori A. May
Naming the World edited by Bret Anthony Johnston [writing exercises]


Bird by Bird is like a funny, generous friend who says smart things and assures you it will all be all right. This is a good first writing book.

On Writing is also a good first writing book. There’s a memoir in the beginning about King’s horrific accident/recovery that feels tempting to skip, but I suggest reading it. Also, don’t listen to him when he says a novel draft should be completed in (I think) six months. I mean, REALLY??

John Gardner’s books are the one that will have to be pried out of my cold, dead hands. Everything I am comes from those books. BUT—I find that my low-res students at Converse often don’t like his “dictatorial” writing style which distresses me. I like his authority and confidence (and less so the focus on the male writer…a product of the time, alas).

Prose and Wood are great for learning how to close-read, and I’d say that some knowledge of Chekhov and other “ancient” masterpieces will be helpful. (Of course such knowledge is helpful anyway.)

You can find a very structural, “how to” approach in Building Fiction. Thrill Me is also helpful in approaching concrete topics. I like Vivid and Continuous because the topics addressed move beyond the “traditional” craft books, staking out new territory.

If you’re feeling lost and uncertain about yourself as a writer, I suggest The Promise of Failure. Also Crash Course, which intersperses writing tips with thoughts on managing your overall writing life.

And managing and shaping your writing life in a big-picture way is what The Write Crowd is all about.

Memoir Your Way offers creative approaches to sharing your life story.

Margaret Atwood is a brilliant thinker. The last essay in this book is something I refer to again and again; it’s not exaggerating that reading and rereading it informs my writing at its very core.

You can’t have a better guide leading you into CNF than the smart and generous Beth Kephart in Handling the Truth.

The Half-Known World is like listening to a series of intelligent and interesting craft lectures, which is what these chapters originally were (delivered at Warren Wilson).

Finally, Naming the World is the best of many prompt writing books/guides I’ve consulted. If I can only choose one, this is the one I’m snatching up.


Let me add that I know there are million more excellent books on writing—and that I own maybe a half-million of those. This is just my winnowed-down, whittled list…the life-changing list that I can’t live without, the list that if you were my student, there’d be some point where I’d exclaim something like, “I know exactly which book you need to read,” and I’m 99 percent sure would be one of these. 

Happy reading, and, more importantly, happy writing!

Monday, June 25, 2018

Flash Fiction Contest!

South 85, the online journal of the Converse low-residency MFA program, is holding its first-ever writing contest…for flash fiction. First prize is $500 and the deadline is August 15, 2018. Blind submissions only, and here are the rest of the details:

Monday, June 18, 2018

Essentials of the Writing Life: Gratitude

This is not one of those posts where I talk about how lucky and grateful I am (though I most certainly am lucky and grateful). Instead, this is a post where I (gently?) suggest that expressing gratitude to others is part of the responsibility of being a good literary citizen.

It’s not as though these are the only ways to express gratitude, but these are some of my practices:

1.     Thank the editors who publish your work. An email is fine, but a handwritten note is even more notable (if you can find a mailing address!). Did someone read a zillion manuscripts to select yours? Did someone take time to offer suggestions that improved your work? Did someone correct your typos? Did someone tweet about the new issue? Did someone do all of these things for no or little pay?

2.     Thank your teachers. A spoken thank you is fine, an email is better, and a handwritten note is a true gift. Did your teacher spend a lot of time reviewing your manuscript and making notations? Did your teacher spend time preparing a class that was smart and logical and organized? Did your teacher treat you as a writer, as a professional? Did your teacher do this for (trust me!) never enough pay? (And here’s my plug for a special thanks for those teachers who work on your thesis. No one’s going to say no to a small, thoughtful gift!)

3.     Thank your community. A spoken thank you from time to time is fine, an email is better, and a mention in your book’s acknowledgments is the best of all. As you write, try to keep a running list (no, that’s not going to jinx whether the book will be published or not; instead it’s a way to be reminded of how many people are rooting for you; also, on a dark day, it’s a pleasant fantasy to envision those names in print). Spell people’s names correctly. Spread a wide net: it’s FREE to say thank you in print.

4.     Thank anyone and everyone who organized an event you participated in, whether you were the headline speaker or you were a paid participant. I promise you that behind each five minutes of “event time” lurk a million phone calls/emails/stressed-out-moments/worry-nightmares/meetings/misunderstandings-needing-to-be-straightened-out/on-the-fly-decisions/etc. Thank that head person who everyone sees on stage with the mic, and also thank those behind-the-scenes people holding clipboards. Thank your fellow panelists/moderator/reader/attendees. A spoken thank you is fine, but if you want to be invited back to speak, a written thank you will be special.

5.     Thank editors and agents who go out of their way to offer constructive advice via a personal rejection. They are busy-busy-busy and they don’t have to offer their thoughts to you. I bet they will remember you. And thank agents/editors you meet via pitch sessions. A thank you note is really going to stand out amidst the tide of query letters. (Obviously, special thanks to YOUR editor and agent! But everyone knows this already, right?)

6.     Thank people who write letters of recommendation or suggest you send something to their agent or who say “use my name” at XYZ literary journal. Spoken or email is fine, but best of all is to turn around and be the person who will write letters and offer connections. (Special thanks to anyone who writes a blurb…again, no one’s going to say no to a small, thoughtful gift!)

7.     Thank the people who host you at writing residencies, the people who have the titles printed on business cards but also the people who clean the rooms and landscape those pretty grounds and manage the paperwork. Spoken is fine, but a follow-up note will stand out. When your book comes out, if it’s appropriate, send along a signed copy for their library.

8.     Thank bookstores that carry your book. Thank bloggers who promote your book on their blogs. Thank writers who interview you. Thank librarians who put your book in their newsletter.

9.     Thank readers. Thank audiences. Thank anyone who forked out money to buy your book or hauled themselves to the library to check out your book or anyone who spent time reading your book or your story or your poem. I think we all know that there are countless other things these people could be doing with their time/energy/money, and they chose YOU. Wow. Is that living the dream or what?

10.  Thank your family, either the biological folks or the family you’ve created. They didn’t ask to be dragged into the writing life, and they are making sacrifices, too, whether it’s being written about or taking up the slack at home or shifting finances so you can enter that contest or a thousand other things that families do. They are doing these things because they love you, but also they deserve thanks. A hug is fine, but spoken is best. Let them know that you see how they are contributing to your pursuit of your art.

11.  Thank writers just for being writers. Send an email to the author of a book you love (don’t get hung up on getting a response or the “right” response). Thank them by writing a review of their book on Amazon or giving it 5 stars on Goodreads. Thank them by telling your friends/book club/relatives about their book. Thank them by reading widely and deeply and appreciating those hard-fought words; thank them by closing a book in the deep heart of the night as you sigh and think, “This.”

Monday, May 28, 2018

Join My Prompt Class at Politics & Prose Bookstore on 6/13!

I’ll be offering another, all-new section of my popular Right Brain Writing prompt classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in DC (Connecticut Ave branch) on Wednesday, June 13. I’d love to see you there…we have a lot of fun, and get some really interesting writing down on the page.

Right Brain Writing: The Art of Losing
Wednesday, June 13
6:30 p.m.– 9 p.m.

Explore your creative side in this session, one of a series of stand-alone classes with prompts designed to get your subconscious flowing. Through guided exercises, we’ll focus on writing about the variety of losses we have encountered in our lives, the large and small absences that inform our landscape. Elizabeth Bishop calls it “the art of losing”; where is the art in saying goodbye? No writing experience necessary! This is a great class for beginners and also for those fiction writers and/or memoirists with more experience who might be stuck in their current projects and are looking for a jolt of inspiration. Our goal is to have fun in a supportive, nurturing environment and to go home with several promising pieces to work on further.  Please bring lots of paper and pen/pencil or a fully charged computer. Note: new exercises!

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry edited by J.D. McClatchy

*Please note: Though this is a poetry book, you are not required to write poetry.

Friday, May 18, 2018

"Cancer Cowboys" & Ticking Clocks: An Interview with Tim Wendel by Mary Kay Zuravleff

I had the pleasure of reading twice recently with author Tim Wendel and hearing about his new book, Cancer Crossings: A Brother, His Doctors, and the Quest for a Cure to Childhood Leukemia. Tim has a wonderful way of speaking about his work, and I was fascinated to learn more about early cancer research and the controversy surrounding medical practices now taken for granted. Naturally, I wanted to hear more! So I’m pleased to present this interview with Tim conducted by author Mary Kay Zuravleff:


Tim is the author of THIRTEEN books, which include novels inspired by Cuba, baseball, Cuban baseball, and World War II, nonfiction books, and even young adult books. He’s an incredibly versatile writer, who’s been a celebrated journalist as well as a beloved writing professor in the Johns Hopkins M.A. program. His latest book, Cancer Crossings: A Brother, His Doctors, and the Quest for a Cure to Childhood Leukemia is an amazing, sad, uplifting tale of his family’s loss to leukemia of his brother, Eric, back in the late 60s. He was the fourth of six kids, and Tim is the oldest, the first-born. From the book cover: “Part family memoir and part medical narrative, Cancer Crossings explores how the Wendel family found the courage to move ahead with their lives.”

David Maraniss has called your work “a winning mix of science, biography and mythology,” which aptly describes this book.  How did you weave together the science, biography, and mythology? (For example, you brought back the memory of when people wouldn’t even say the word “cancer,” which was part of its mythology.)

First, David is being very kind. He’s been a great friend of my work, along with Ken Burns, David Granger, Frank Deford, Cathy Alter and so many others over the years. Always great to have folks like that in your camp.

As a writer, I dislike being pigeon-holed. For example, some say I’m just a baseball writer. OK, I do enjoy the game and it plays well on the page, but I’ve done a nonfiction book (Summer of ’68) and a novel (Castro’s Curveball) with the sport as the backdrop and they play out very differently. In the case of Summer of ’68, I moved sports to the foreground during one of the most tumultuous periods in our nation’s history. With Curveball, the conceit was what if Fidel Castro had pursued baseball more seriously? If so, the world as we know it would have been much different.

So, I think you’re keeping an eye out for those connections, places where different elements come into contact. In my new book, Cancer Crossings: A Brother, His Doctors and the Quest to Cure Childhood Leukemia, I needed to find the places where the treatment of my brother Eric for leukemia intersected with the procedures and new philosophy of the so-called “cancer cowboys” – the doctors who took this form of cancer from a death sentence to a 90 percent cure rate. Once you open yourself up to such possibilities, there are many more than you realize at first.

Your brother Eric was first diagnosed with leukemia in 1966, when he was three years old. And his story is a tale of miracles and also just-missed opportunities. Because his diagnosis came at the turning point from doctors seeing their duty as offering palliative care and aggressively experimenting with drug combinations to put leukemia into remission. Tell us about the prognosis then and what it would be like now for a child with his diagnosis?

The odds of a child surviving acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which is the form of cancer my brother had, have been greatly improved. My daughter Sarah was at Georgetown Medical School when I began Cancer Crossings. She’s the one who pointed out that the survival rate went from 10 percent to 90 percent during the 1970s. That really turned my head and I went in search of this small group of doctors who did it. Many were in their mid to late 80s by then. And when they told me how much opposition they faced from the medical community, how they were called killers, poison pushers, misfits and, yes, cancer cowboys because they dared to try something different when it came to leukemia, well, I was hooked. I had the elements of a family memoir and a medical detective story. And with the latter, there was fierce opposition to what the cancer cowboys were trying to do. Until this point, many in the medical community refused to take on cancer. It was that daunting. But the cancer cowboys pushed ahead and many of the advances we take for granted today – chemotherapy cocktails, the blood centrifuge machine, etc. – are a result of their work.

Your parents’ response to his first remission was to buy a big old sailboat for their family of six children and to not only go for sails but to sail all the way across Lake Ontario, from Buffalo to Toronto, an a Saturday and sail back home on Sunday. You wrote in Psychology Today that “We coped with my brother's struggle against leukemia by doing instead of talking.” Tell us how that seemed then and how it seems now, as a parent, looking back on your family’s response?

Few things make you feel as vulnerable as becoming a parent. The core emotion is you want to protect this new being you’ve brought into the world. To realize, decades later, that my parents also dared to have family adventures, even with a kid with leukemia in tow, kind of blew my mind. My parents taught us to really live in the present. We jammed as much as we could into every day. We sailed to the far horizon on Lake Ontario, which is a huge body of water, in the summers, and skated and played hockey in the winters. They let their son with ALL play hockey? Kind of crazy isn’t it? But it all kind of worked and us kids learned so much in the process. For example, my father made sure we knew how to read the wind, to realize that it’s always changing direction and velocity. Of course, that makes you a better sailor, but it’s also a great way to look at life. In a way, Cancer Crossings focuses on my parents when they were at their best, and that’s a good thing for any kid to be reminded of.

I always tell my students to be mindful of having a clock in their book, and you have many ticking time bombs in yours. Of course, there’s Eric’s illness. On the other end, a kinder clock, is  your own daughter in medical school learning about those pivotal years that changed the outcome for leukemia patients. What was that like, her bringing you that discovery?

I knew I needed to do right by this request. My daughter genuinely wanted to know more about my brother, his doctors, this quest to cure childhood leukemia. I guess it’s another example of how being a parent opens you. I mean I couldn’t really shrug this off. My daughter wanted to know something important about my past and it was up to me to find some of those answers. Would I have written such a personal story, with a steep learning curve for me about medical procedures and meds, without her request? Probably not. But the fact my daughter wanted to know made it very important from the get-go.

Another clock is ticking with the doctors—they were racing to find treatments or even a cure and then when you decided to write the book, there’s your race to find them and interview them because they’re getting on in years. Can you talk about those two clocks—the doctors early careers and talking to them now?

Time running out or running down in any work creates urgency, heightens things across the board. I hadn’t planned to have two clocks ticking, they were there, right in front of me. One was the race to cure a deadly disease before more kids died. But I soon realized that many of the cancer doctors and nurses were getting on in years, too. How much longer would they be with us? All of them were very forthcoming in our conversations because I think they knew when they passed on much of this incredible success story, the details about a modern medical miracle, would go with them. Indeed, several of the cancer cowboys died in the weeks leading up to the book’s release. My hope is some of their message lives on in these pages.

Early on in the book, you mention that Cancer Crossings is a departure for you, being a book that’s focused on medicine instead of sports. But you have written about teams overcoming obstacles and great odds. The doctors at Roswell Park certainly qualify as a group of people trying to do something that nobody thinks they can. What do you think draws you to such stories?

I’ve always been intrigued by how successful groups and teams work, especially when they are made up of different personalities and viewpoints. I think it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said writers and artists are drawn to particular stories or themes. How they are part of our DNA and we have no choice but to keep returning to them. Early on in writing Cancer Crossings, a good friend pointed out that I was doing it again. That the only real difference this time was I focusing on an elite group of doctors instead of a memorable team of ballplayers or hockey stars. Either way it was a group of underdogs, only this time they were daring to take on this shapeshifter of a disease. When he told me that I remember thinking to myself, “OK, I can do this.”


Buy Cancer Crossings:

More about Tim Wendel: www.timwendel.com



Mary Kay Zuravleff’s latest novel, Man Alive!, was named a 2013 Notable Book by The Washington Post. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in The AtlanticLos Angeles Review of Books, American Short Fiction, and The Washington Post. She is the founder of NoveltyDC, which offers master classes on the novel and manuscript consultation.

Friday, April 27, 2018

“Follow the Brush”: Vulnerability, Lyricism, and the Art of Creative Nonfiction

An Interview with Susan Tekulve, author of Second Shift, Essays of Susan Tekulve

By John Newlin

In her collection of intimate essays entitled Second Shift, Susan Tekulve has crafted a brilliant series of highly autobiographical pieces.  What makes them so powerful is that she speaks to the universal qualities of beauty, pain, fear, and does so in a way that makes us see that she is a person/writer/poet who is attentive to her surroundings and deeply reflective of what she experiences.

JN: Writing anything at all autobiographical involves taking some risks.  One particularly compelling quality of Second Shift is how deeply personal it is.  Your discussion of your husband Rick’s blindness in one eye and your resulting fear in “The Plain of Sorrento” is one example.  Another is your willingness to expose your own vulnerabilities in “Just For Fun” and several other essays.  Was it a struggle to permit yourself to write about those aspects of yourself? 

ST: That’s the million-dollar question, John.   All writers, but especially nonfiction writers, have to consider the risks of exposing their vulnerabilities.  For me, it’s a matter of intention.  In the beginning stages, I think of all my writing as private because I only feel focused when I write as if nobody is ever going to read what I’ve written. This is how I trick my mind out of worrying about what other people think. This kind of worrying kills any piece of writing before I type the first words. When I begin thinking about an essay or a story as public, and therefore a piece I might publish, I always consider my intentions.  If the writing in the essay serves simply as therapy, retribution, or purgation, then I’m wary of my intentions, and I usually keep that piece private for a while longer.  If the writing in the essay turns out questions I think others will relate to, and invites the reader into a dialogue, then I’m more likely to consider turning that essay into a public piece that I’d consider publishing.

JN:…and that leads to the question of truth versus imagination in the writing of autobiographical material, doesn’t it?

ST: As I tell my nonfiction students, you have to tell the whole truth, and sometimes that means giving details about yourself, or others, that are private.  Revealing these kinds of truths can make you feel extremely vulnerable. However, if your intentions are to honor and honestly explore yourself, or another human being, then even the unflattering truths can make your subject more complicated. Keep in mind, too, that all personal “truths” are really an individual’s perceptions.  These perceptions must be as true as possible, certainly not libelous, and they must be shaped well into an essay, using language that engages.  In other words, the way we write an essay, the skillful shaping of vulnerable truths will honor the subject, and help the writer to avoid a simplified spilling of emotions on the page.  Finally, the narrative “I” of the personal essay must be just as multi-faceted as a well-drawn fictional character.  As with fiction, who really wants to read about perfect people?  Once, while I was reading Paradise Lost, I began to wonder why Milton made the characters of Adam and Eve so flat and simple.  While I read the parts about Adam and Eve in paradise, before the fall, I nearly fell into a stupor. Satan, on the other hand, is a much more conflicted and complicated character.  He has the gift of the gab, as they say, and he articulates his vulnerabilities—his sorrows, fears, and loss--much more engagingly.  But he is Satan!  If I followed the conventional wisdom, I wasn’t supposed to empathize with Satan. So I asked my husband, who is a poet, why I preferred Satan’s character over the characters of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost.   He said, “We like Satan because he most resembles us.” 

What he meant, of course, is that we are all frail and vulnerable from time to time. As Phillip Lopate writes in The Art of the Personal Essay, some vulnerability is essential to the personal essay because it would be insincere to never admit that you are vulnerable.  As Lopate explains, “Unproblematically self-assured, self-contained, self-satisfied types will not make good essayists.”  The skilled reader will turn away from that narrator.  So the struggle, always, with writing personal essays is how to be self-aware, without being self-absorbed, callow, insensitive or hurtful to others. 

JN: So true.  You accomplish making that connection with the reader by revealing yours (and husband Rick’s) vulnerabilities in this collection, something that definitely drew my interest.  How does one weigh the pros and cons of self-exposure?

ST:  It’s interesting that you asked whether I had to struggle with giving myself permission to speak in the essay “Just For Fun.”  Of all the essays in the collection, I struggled the most over how much of my own fear and discomfort I should reveal.  The strange “gun incident” that launches that essay shook me to my core, and the events that followed filled me with a tremendous sense of outrage. I started the essay the day after the incident, and I wrote it straight through.  In the first draft there were parts where the narrative “I” sounds a bit angry.  I kept this piece private for a long time, paralyzed by worries about writing from this vulnerable stance.   Did the narrative voice of this essay sound shrill, messy, unhinged?  Surely there were far more violent crimes being committed all around me, so what part of my story, which seemed mild compared to the gun assault stories of others, seemed worthy of a public discourse?  Did I sound like victim?  Above all, I didn’t want to write from the stance of complete victimhood. Being a passive victim narrator would be even worse than being an angry narrator.

Anger is the most extreme form of vulnerability for me because it is the absence of control. It can ruin your health if you hold onto it, and if you write purely from an angry stance it can ruin your writing because it’s extremely difficult to maintain control from this perspective. Readers don’t want to be bludgeoned by an uncontrollable stream of another person’s pain and anger—especially female anger.  Unfortunately, we are socially coded to believe that a woman’s anger and outrage undermines her ability to be heard.  We are brought up to feel, perhaps subconsciously, that female anger is usually irrational, overblown.  Female anger sometimes evokes more anger, not understanding, and certainly not respect.   I recently read an interesting article by Leslie Jamison in The New York Times about female anger and sadness. Jamison posits that female sadness and rage are two parts of the same emotion, and that women are still much more likely to reframe themselves as sad, rather than angry, because our society still views angry women as harpies and Medusas. Angry women are considered messy and unhinged, and it’s still widely assumed that their pain is more likely to spin out of control, and hurt those around them.  Sad women, on the other hand, summon sympathy.  They are typically perceived as self-controlled, elegant, and even desirable—as long as they don’t get carried away and become eternal victims.  In short, the melancholy, meditative female narrator of an essay is much easier for people to relate to, and read. 

About three years passed before I could look at the “Just For Fun” essay more objectively.  By this time, the gun control debate had become even more volatile, but it had become more socially acceptable for women to voice their anger. In 2017, when anger became the dominant emotion across the country, the normative bonds that kept women from expressing their full-on ire seemed to fall away. Suddenly, angry women and female characters were being celebrated, rather than ridiculed as hysterics and paranoids.   It began to seem that my “Just For Fun” essay might actually open a dialogue, rather than shut the conversation down.   I still believe that men and women should be responsible for their own anger. I still believe we must be careful with people, always, in life as well as in our writing. But writing that essay taught me a whole lot about writing from an emotional stance that I used to avoid entirely. 

JN:  Particularly impressive to me is the way you juxtapose at least two seemingly different elements in most of your essays.  For example, in “Hell Broth and Poisoned Entrails” you combine the discussion of traditional fare with the Bubonic plague!  

Well, the juxtaposition in that essay came naturally.  I really did go to the whisky shops on the Royal Mile the first day my husband, son, and I were in Edinburgh.  My husband bought me a bottle of lovely, but deadly, lowland whisky as a gift, and I made the mistake of sipping that whisky out of an elegant teacup while eating a picnic we made out of the hardy local Scottish food—mostly organ meats.  Around this time, I’d been reading through all the books on our landlady’s bookshelf.  Usually, it’s good to raid the bookshelves of rental homes or apartments because they often hold books that contain information that you wouldn’t find in a standard travel guide of a city.  Our Scottish landlady was exceptionally literary.  I discovered The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on her shelves, and to this day I am a huge fan of Muriel Spark because I discovered her in Edinburgh, where she was born, and where she set this wonderfully eerie novel.  Perhaps I should have read this novel first, but I read the book about the Bubonic plague instead. When I woke in the middle of the night, still in a dream state that comes from drinking sweet lowland whisky while jet lagged, that’s when I diagnosed myself with the Bubonic plague. 

The juxtaposition of those two elements—Scottish cooking and the Bubonic plague-- came later, after the editors at Serving House Books—Walter Cummins and Thomas E. Kennedy--sent out a simple yet brilliant prompt to all the writers who published with their press: Write about the worst meal you ever experienced.  Don’t write about your day-to-day fare; write about a food you ate under nightmare circumstances.   This prompt was brilliant because when you write about food you are never simply writing about what’s on your plate.  Food, or the lack of food, holds some of our most intense memories, so writing about your best, or worst, food experiences allows you to delve into memories both ecstatic and nightmarish. The prompt also contained the key word “experience,” which demanded that I shape the food metaphor into a whole narrative--a story, a poem, or an essay.

JN:  This is all excellent advice for the MFA student learning the craft of writing the personal essay.  Please tell us more!

ST:  In general, we use juxtaposition to create metaphor, or to view a subject from a different perspective. Food writing is one of the easiest ways to create metaphor through juxtaposition. Writing about a specific food experience, enables you to explore a whole range of experiences in a more oblique way that can heighten a reader’s emotional response.  MFK Fisher famously wrote, “There is food in the bowl, and more often than not, because of what honesty I have, there is nourishment in the heart, to feed the wilder, more insistent hungers.  We must eat.  If, in the face of that dread fact, we can find other nourishment, and tolerance and compassion for it, we’ll be no less full of human dignity.”  When Tom and Walter sent the food prompt to me, I was in the middle of writing a long novel that was set in a time and place that was wild, so the hungers of my characters were wild, and insistent.  I was beginning to realize how emotionally draining it can be to live in the heads of such characters.  I realized that sometimes it’s just a good idea to take a step back, and stop taking myself so seriously. While I used the food prompt to write an essay whose goal is to entertain, the lesson it taught me about the use of juxtaposition has been lasting.

JN: Details, details, details.  Can you relate to us something of your process of gathering specific elements?  Is there any specific goal you have in mind before you begin cataloguing the details---what are you looking to do with these pieces?

ST:  A friend of mine once said--and I believe he was quoting Henry Miller—that a writer collects details the way a man in a blue serge suit collects lint. If you don’t pick up details naturally, then there are plenty of fun ways to train yourself to collect details more deliberately.  For instance, when I know I’m going to write about a place, or the people who inhabit it, I carry a pocket-sized notebook, and an old Powershot camera.  First, I write down all the sensory details as I experience them.  I try to experience the subject viscerally first, jotting down all the sights, the textures, the smells, the sounds, and, sometimes, the tastes. Even if I don’t feel a detail is important at the time, I write it down anyway because often the less obvious details are the ones that end up being most important.  Then, I take out my camera, and compose several pictures of what I think I’m seeing, hearing, feeling.  My old Powershot camera has a great device on it called “creative shot.”  After I’ve composed the shots of what I think I’ve seen and experienced, I flip the camera into “creative shot” mode, and the camera automatically composes five additional photos.  Each additional photo crops the subject from a different angle.  The camera automatically uses different filters, colors, and light.  I don’t really share any of these creative shots with anyone.  I just use them to force myself to look beyond my own initial perceptions, and to collect details in ways I haven’t seen them before.

You can try this exercise with a regular phone camera too. Go to a place and write down all the details you experience.  Compose some pictures of what you think you are seeing, and experiencing.  Then, return to your writing space and look at those pictures again. Write about something that appears on the periphery of the pictures.  What’s going on behind your subject, or off to the side?  The less-obvious details that come to you as a surprise, the ones that recur in your imagination for reasons you don’t quite understand, are often wellsprings for personal essays and fiction. Virginia Woolf wrote about this most eloquently in her memoir, Moments of Being.  She writes that we spend a good part of every day not living consciously.  We eat, sleep, and work without paying much attention to what’s going on around us.  Then there are times, which she calls “Moments of Being,” when we are shocked out of our everyday complacency. She poses that the “job” of every writer is to learn how to identify metaphor in these heightened moments of experience.  Once identified, these moments are followed by the desire to explore the subject by writing about it, and then examining the experience. She believed that every writer has two selves.  The past self has sensory experiences, often without complete understanding.  The present self continually searches the past, interpreting, evaluating, and shaping the past into essays or stories.  This is the central impulse behind storytelling, both in fiction and nonfiction.

JN:  Wow, such really helpful tips!  And they apply equally well to all genres.  I know you write and teach poetry, as well as non-fiction and fiction, and it’s evident in the often lyrical quality of these essays.  Please share with us how your background as a poet informs your essays. 

ST:  Poetry was the first literary form I studied when I was an undergraduate, so whenever I return to this form I feel a sense of familiarity, and safety.  Often, when I’m trying to explore a new topic for an essay that feels large and unwieldy, I’ll write it out as a poem first.  The use of lyric strategies—the turning of the line, the concentration on word selection, the juxtaposition of images—de-emphasizes the sequential and linear, and allows me to get to the emotional center of my material sooner.  Once I find the emotional core of what I’m exploring, I can de-lineate the original draft or expand upon it in a more linear way.  Or, sometimes, the lyric structure remains.  I just develop the poem into a long-form essay. 

Also, in general, I’ve come to think that the essay form has much more in common with poetry than it does with fiction.  I believe this to be the case because the roots of the essay are lyric.  For instance, the Japanese writer and Buddhist monk, Kenko, who was writing in the 13th century, used a random mode of composition known as zuihitsu, which translates as “follow the brush.”  He, and his counterparts, were downright suspicious of narrative forms because they believed that formlessness was more sincere.  Once something was put into a linear, narrative form it was no longer the truth.  So Kenko’s essays skip from subject to subject, without any obvious links.  Today’s lyric essay, which is basically an extended lyric poem, relies upon those same lyric brushstrokes, the same density of language, the same use of compression as a poem requires.

Anyway, the concept of the personal essay as purely a linear narrative form is relatively recent. The roots of essay writing are much more expansive and flexible, which could be why I’m drawn to writing them in the same way that I’m drawn to writing poetry.    

JN:  That makes terrific sense!  Susan, I’m fascinated to know a little bit about your next writing projects.  

ST:  I’m in the middle of an ongoing travel and food-writing project that involves researching and recording intangible heritage sites that can be found in the small towns of Southern Italy. Unlike tangible heritage sites, like monuments or museums, the intangibles are customs that are handed down through generations. There is a whole biosphere on the Cilento Coast that is protected by UNESCO for its intangibles, which include the anchovy fishing techniques that were brought over by the Greeks 3,000 years ago, the shoulder-borne saint processions, and even the traditional ways of making of some foods that are a part of the Mediterranean diet.  These customs rely upon communal memory, and the transmission of information from one generation to the next.  As the members of the older generation who remember these customs die out, and their children and grandchildren scatter north to find employment in bigger cities, whole communities risk forgetting these traditions.  Our memories, personal and communal, form our identities, so if we lose them we forget who we are.   It’s this idea of memory, personal and communal, that I hope to explore in a more concrete way through the food and travel experiences.

JN:  Susan, thank you so much.  One doesn’t have to sit in one of your craft classes to see how brilliant an instructor you must be.

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John Newlin earned his MFA at Converse College (SC).  His reviews and essays have appeared in Night Owl, Independent School, and South 85, where he is Review Editor.  He also writes reviews for the New York Journal of Books.

Susan Tekulve is the author of In the Garden of Stone, winner of the 2012 South Carolina First Novel Prize and a 2014 Gold IPPY Award. She’s also published two short story collections: Savage Pilgrims and My Mother’s War Stories. Her stories and essays have appeared in Shenandoah,The Georgia ReviewNew LettersBest New Writing 2007The Indiana ReviewDenver QuarterlyPuerto del SolPrairie SchoonerNorth Dakota QuarterlyConnecticut ReviewBeloit Fiction JournalCrab Orchard Review, The Literary ReviewWeb Del SolBlack Warrior Review, and The Kansas City Star. She has been awarded a Sewanee Writers’ Conference Scholarship and a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Scholarship. An Associate Professor of English, she teaches in the BFA and MFA in creative writing programs at Converse College.


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