April 30, 2012

Testify!



Hallelujah! Literary culture is alive and well in this country, and I’m here to testify!

I’m writing this Friday night after attending the opening reading and gala for issue 2 of the Open Window Review. This online zine was founded six months ago by the poet Lori Howe and her class of creative writing students at Laramie County Community College, Albany County Campus.

I’ve know Lori for years. We got our master’s together back in the Oughts, and Laramie’s a small town, you know? You run into the same people all time in different capacities. Lori writes exquisite poetry and she also bakes the tastiest and most beautiful cakes.

The reading was wonderful. Lots of short pieces. All levels of writers. Lots of familiar faces too. Lori read one of her lovely poems. Court Merrigan, a Wyoming fiction writer from Torrington, came down and read a fabulous short fiction piece. The poet Shelly Norris, another person I know from the UW English department, read her wonderful poetry. (I just found out tonight we grew up in neighboring towns in northern Wyoming, only ten years apart.) David Romvedt, poet laureate of Wyoming, wasn’t there, but Open Window editor Jason Deiss read his work. Lindsay Wilson, another poet I know from UW, wasn’t able to attend so his work was read by Dylan Robinson. And I was introduced to all these new writers. I was particularly taken by the poetry of Abel Ruiz and Bret Norwood.

And it was well attended. There were 30 or 40 people, and that’s against the rock band Kansas who’s playing in town tonight.

As I sat there listening in the beautiful foyer of the building, the sun setting through the huge windows behind the readers, I thought: this is grassroots writing. I don’t know how to say this without sounding condescending ~ because I mean quite the opposite. By grassroots, I mean that it was the opposite of professional writing. Not that it wasn’t good. A number of the writers are well established, and others not so much, but all the writing shone like little jewels. By the opposite of professional I mean, it was people writing and reading who loved it, who are not in any way jaded, who were coming together in a communion of literary fellowship.

I feel unable to articulate exactly what I’m trying to say.

It was like a Pete Seeger gathering. Everyone sang and it all had such meaning and power. The news around the literary world and around publishing and around reading and writing and “kids these days” and all that ~ it seems the end of the world as we know it. But then, to attend this event, to worship at the altar of great writing, the rest of it is nothing but hot air.

This is what writing is about. Being human and connecting with your fellow human beings.

April 27, 2012

Life Lessons from Slasher Films, by Jessica Robinson



Got great news from a friend of mine yesterday: her nonfiction book on slasher films will be out this summer!  It’s called Life Lessons from Slasher Films and it began as her master’s thesis. 

Fascinating stuff.  I’m not a fan of slasher films ~ they majorly creep me out because my stress dreams consist of men chasing me with knives ~ but nonetheless this is a great read.  I know because I helped her index it. J (Funny story about that here.)

This is what Jessica (pen name Pembroke Sinclair) says about it:

The book takes an academic/scholarly look at slasher films and the importance they have in our culture, but since I don't have any "credentials," I can't actually claim it's a "scholarly" book. The writing has been altered to appeal to a more general audience, so it should be accessible to all readers. I look at seven films: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Psycho, Black Christmas, Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream, along with the remakes of every film, except for Scream (Scream 4 wasn't out yet while I was working on this). I picked these specific films because they helped define the genre.

Some of the things I examine in the book are gender, the rites of passage from teens into adults, the killer as a demonic teacher, and how the remakes have tried to make the killer sympathetic, along with some other ideas. It's the culmination of years of work, and I still can't believe someone is going to publish it.


I have to say, one of the many things I love about the book is the skillful way Jessica builds her argument.  One of the things I’ve long admired about some writers is their ability to further an argument just short of the next point, and then bam! the next section continues the argument.  In other words, they lead your mind right to the point where you’re asking the question, and then the next section answers that question but then leads you on to the next question in the next section.  So easy for the reader, so hard for the writer. 

So be on the lookout for it, especially if you like that hair-raising feeling of spooky music, a deserted house, innocent teen sitting there not knowing about the masked maniac in the closet. Oooh!

April 26, 2012

The Best Anthologies, or a Mash Note to Anthony Doerr


You know how you idly (see obsessively) click on anything written by certain people?  Anthony Doerr is one of these for me.  He is so smart and personable and such a wonderful writer.  There’s a piece he wrote for the Lit Pub called “A Universe That’s Three Inches Tall and Weighs Three Pounds” I read last year that talks about his love of books, in particular one thick anthology of short stories that he lugged all the way across New Zealand.  Well, of course, I immediately went out and got a copy.

Oh, man.  It is one of the two best anthologies I have ever read.  It’s called The Story and Its Writer, edited by Ann Charters, and it has all the greats ~ everything from “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” to “Tiny, Smiling Daddy.”  The best stories by the best writers of all time.  (The other anthology that is just as great ~ for that very same reason ~ is The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction.)

I am about a third of the way through, with a glorious two-thirds left to read.  I alternately gobble and savor, ravage and caress this volume!  I spend my day looking forward to running a hot bubble bath and cracking it open at the next jewel of a story, wending my way night by night through a fantastic journey of words.

So, if you’re a short story buff, take note and get a copy of each of these. Oh, and give Tony a hug for me when you see him!

April 25, 2012

100 Things About Photography, by Nithin Prabhakar

Majestic Bangalore, India, by Nithin Prabhakar

Nithin Prabhakar, from the Kerala region of India, posted this great list on Google+ the other day.  I thought I'd share.  Great list, Nithin!

100 Things About Photography

1. Just because someone has an expensive camera doesn’t mean that they’re a good photographer.

2. Always shoot in RAW. Always.

3. Prime lenses help you learn to be a better photographer.

4. Photo editing is an art in itself.

5. The rule of thirds works 99% of the time.

6. Macro photography isn’t for everybody.

7. UV filters work just as well as lens caps.

8. Go outside and shoot photos rather than spending hours a day on photography forums.

9. Capture the beauty in the mundane and you have a winning photograph.

10. Film isn’t better than digital.

11. Digital isn’t better than film.

12. There is no “magic” camera or lens.

13. Better lenses don’t give you better photos.

14. Spend less time looking at other people’s work and more time shooting your own.

15. Don’t take your DSLR to parties.

16. Girls dig photographers.

17. Making your photos b/w doesn’t automatically make them “artsy”.

18. People will always discredit your work if you tell them you “photoshop” your images. Rather, tell them that you process them in the “digital darkroom”.

19. You don’t need to take a photo of everything.

20. Have at least 2 backups of all your images. Like they say in war, two is one, one is none.

21. Ditch the neck strap and get a handstrap.

22. Get closer when taking your photos, they often turn out better.

23. Be a part of a scene while taking a photo; not a voyeur.

24. Taking a photo crouched often make your photos look more interesting.

25. Worry less about technical aspects and focus more on compositional aspects of photography.

26. Tape up any logos on your camera with black gaffers tape- it brings a lot less attention to you.

27. Always underexpose by 2/3rds of a stop when shooting in broad daylight.

28. The more photos you take, the better you get.

29. Don’t be afraid to take several photos of the same scene at different exposures, angles, or apertures.

30. Only show your best photos.

31. A point-and-shoot is still a camera.

32. Join an online photography forum.

33. Critique the works of others.

34. Think before you shoot.

35. A good photo shouldn’t require explanation (although background information often adds to an image).

*36. Alcohol and photography do not mix well.

37. Draw inspiration from other photographers but never worship them.

38. Grain is beautiful.

39. Ditch the photo backpack and get a messenger bag. It makes getting your lenses and camera a whole lot easier.

40. Simplicity is key.

41. The definition of photography is: “painting with light.” Use light in your favor.

42. Find your style of photography and stick with it.

43. Having a second monitor is the best thing ever for photo processing.

44. Silver EFEX pro is the best b/w converter.

45. Carry your camera with you everywhere. Everywhere.

46. Never let photography get in the way of enjoying life.

47. Don’t pamper your camera. Use and abuse it.

48. Take straight photos.

49. Shoot with confidence.

50. Photography and juxtaposition are best friends.

51. Print out your photos big. They will make you happy.

52. Give your photos to friends.

53. Give them to strangers.

54. Don’t forget to frame them.

55. Costco prints are cheap and look great.

56. Go out and take photos with (a) friend(s).

57. Join a photo club or start one for yourself.

58. Photos make great presents.

59. Taking photos of strangers is thrilling.

60. Candid;Posed.

61. Natural light is the best light.

62. 35mm (on full frame) is the best “walk-around” focal length.

63. Don’t be afraid to bump up your ISO when necessary.

64. You don’t need to always bring a tripod with you everywhere you go

65. It is always better to underexpose than overexpose.

66. Shooting photos of homeless people in an attempt to be “artsy” is exploitation.

67. You will find the best photo opportunities in the least likely situations.

68. Photos are always more interesting with the human element included.

69. You can’t “Photoshop” bad images into good ones.

70. Nowadays everybody is a photographer.

71. You don’t need to fly to Paris to get good photos; the best photo opportunities are in your backyard.

72. People with DSLRS who shoot portraits with their grip pointed downwards look like morons.

73. Cameras as tools, not toys.

74. In terms of composition, photography and painting aren’t much different.

75. Photography isn’t a hobby- it’s a lifestyle.

76. Make photos, not excuses.

77. Be original in your photography. Don’t try to copy the style of others.

78. The best photographs tell stories that begs the viewer for more.

79. Any cameras but black ones draw too much attention.

80. The more gear you carry around with you the less you will enjoy photography.

81. Good self-portraits are harder to take than they seem.

82. Laughter always draws out peoples’ true character in a photograph.

83. Don’t look suspicious when taking photos- blend in with the environment.

84. Landscape photography can become dull after a while.

85. Have fun while taking photos.

86. Never delete any of your photos.

87. Be respectful when taking photos of people or places.

88. When taking candid photos of people in the street, it is easier to use a wide-angle than a telephoto lens.

89. Travel and photography are the perfect pair.

90. Learn how to read a histogram.

91. A noisy photo is better than a blurry one.

92. Don’t be afraid to take photos in the rain.

93. Learn how to enjoy the moment, rather than relentlessly trying to capture the perfect picture of it.

94. Never take photos on an empty stomach.

95. You will discover a lot about yourself through your photography.

96. Never hoard your photographic insight- share it with the world.

97. Never stop taking photos.

98. Photography is more than simply taking photos, it is a philosophy of life.

99. Capture the decisive moment.

100. Write your own list.

April 24, 2012

The Buckhorn Bar


I worked at the Buckhorn Bar, or the Buck, from 1988 to 1993.  It was a great job to put me through college. The hours were flexible and didn’t conflict with classes. I met a lot of great people there, including my husband (story below).  I wrote a story about working there.

If you say the Buck or the Buckhorn to people in Laramie, you most often will get a knowing look or a shake of the head in return.  The Buck is one of those places of legend.  It’s been in existence over 100 years and is on the Register of Historic Places.  It was one of the first bars in Laramie after the infamous tent bar the Bucket of Blood, which had bodies buried under the dirt floor. It’s right by the railroad tracks, and there was at one time a brothel on the second floor, now the Parlour Bar.  It has a real bullet hole in the mirror ~ some idjet got jealous over a woman and stood in the alley across the street and shot into a bar full of people, before I worked there, thank goodness.

The great thing about the Buck is that all kinds come there.  In one corner you’ll have the regulars, some of which look a little rough around the edges and are in fact a little rough around the edges.  In another corner you’ll have a couple of cowboys and then a group of college students and then some bikers and then a couple of businessmen, maybe even a college professor or two.  And everyone gets along.  It isn’t a family place, but it’s a “family place” because the place is a lot of people’s family. 

Imagine Cheers set in the declining West.  That includes the feeling many people get there.  I worked alone on Sunday afternoons, but I never worried about things.  If I needed a case of beer brought up from the basement, I’d get one of the regulars to do it, since they pitched in with bartending every once in a while anyway.  If there was a fight, which was rare, a regular would break it up.  People would get 86’d for life for a month or two, and then they’d be let back in. 

It’s been owned by the Hopkins family for a long time.  What a great bunch. I didn’t know Johnney, the Patriarch, very well, but the very nice mom Pauline did the books ~ probably still does ~ and Mike ran the place.  Mike’s a great guy ~ very congenial, wonderfully nice.  He even ran for city council once.  A lot of the same people work there for years.  Bea was a fixture, with her “red” hair and brusque attitude.  She still goes down to the Eagle’s Club, but she must be older than dirt. 

I worked there with a wonderful gal named Lauri.  She’s short and blonde and doesn’t take any crap from anyone.  Think Cheers Carla, but with more authority.  She was and is such a great friend, and that’s the reason I ended up there last night for shifters.  Lauri was visiting so we went to revisit the scene of the crime.  It had not changed a whit.  Sure, there were some new faces but they were cut out of a mold.    Such a good time.  Then we went next door the Mexican restaurant El Conquistador (YUM) and sobered up.  How’s that for a Monday night’s entertainment?

The Buck has a special place in my heart, not least of all this last story.  Not a week after I turned 19 (the drinking age was 19 then), I interviewed with Mike for a job as bartender.  I made sure to wear lots of pink.  It got me the job.  My very first Friday working, the bouncer who was a football player had to take someone down who was waving a gun.  No one shot, though.  But, this one very tall, very handsome, very nice guy came in with two friends, a man and a woman.  The very tall guy came up to the bar and ordered drinks and chatted with me for a minute.  He then took the drinks back to the table and told his two companions that if I ever quit dating the guy I was seeing, he’d marry me.  And it’s not just a story ~ I have corroboration.  I found out his name was Lurch.  Every week, we would do a drawing, and the next week a Steve Linse won it.  I asked Lauri, “Who that heck is that?”  “Lurch, of course,” was her answer.  So we got to know each other for two and a half years as friends, and then we started dating.  The rest is history.  The two who came in with him that first night got married and then were best man and matron of honor at our low-key wedding.

And you know what they say: the secret to a happy marriage is to have met at the Buckhorn Bar.

April 23, 2012

Brave New Novel

The Love Token, by Herbert Candy

I’ve only got one thing to say today:  Woo hooo!!!!

I started a new novel today ~ my first actual words on the actual page.  Oh, I’ve been thinking about it for a long time and fiddling with it for a long time, but today’s the day. Actual words on the actual page. 

Very exciting!

April 20, 2012

No Words

There are no words.  This is the most moving and troubling photo I have seen in a long time. 

Iraqi boy in an orphanage drew his mother and slept in her arms

Taryn Simon, Photographer


Taryn Simon is a photographer, but more than that, she is an investigator. Her intelligence burns bright and clear - I love that.  

I love how she interrogates the narratives behind photos and its connections to the fixed moment in time.  Official versions vs. “what happened.”  Lots of implications for the transfer of lived experience into narrative.

Rather than me talking about what she says so eloquently, I’ll let her speak for herself.


April 19, 2012

Write Like a Man


Have you ever wondered whether you write like a man or write like a woman?

Well, now you can analyze your text and find out, with the Gender Genie.  Here’s a description on the site:

Inspired by an article and a test in The New York Times Magazine, the Gender Genie uses a simplified version of an algorithm developed by Moshe Koppel, Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and Shlomo Argamon, Illinois Institute of Technology, to predict the gender of an author. Read more at BookBlog, The New York Times, and The Guardian.


I analyzed a number of different things.  In my historical novel that’s at my agent, there are two points a view, one female and one male.  When I put the female in the Gender Genie, it comes out female, and when I put the male in I get male.  Well, that’s great!  When I put in most of the rest of my fiction, though, it comes up male.  This blog comes up female.

It’s a really interesting exercise on so many levels, though I haven’t dug into the whys and wherefores.  There are reams of really interesting and valuable research about gender and legitimacy and art and creativity.

The reason I come up mostly male, I think, is that when I was a kid, I tried to be a man.  By that I mean, male was the only gender with legitimacy, and so I was like a covert operative in a foreign and hostile territory ~ I studied the natives intimately and ruthlessly and, through books, from the inside out.  I inculcated the male perspective, most often at the expense of the female.  Then I grew up and took my first women’s studies class and boy did that open my eyes.  Now I accept and celebrate that I am a woman.

So, should I find it troubling that the Gender Genie finds most of my fiction to be male?  Or should I take comfort because “white male writer” is the normative subjectivity (i.e., thought of as neutral, and all other subjectivities are additive/hyphenated ~ woman writer, African-American writer, African-American woman writer, and so on) and hence my work might be more acceptable and perhaps publishable?  That little girl in me who so wanted to be a boy feels a prick of satisfaction (pun intended) but the grown woman feels a bit disturbed, as she always does at these things. 

There’s an intense ongoing dialog about this right now (and probably always) because of the Republican War on Women and Franzenfreude. Some particularly insightful writers on the subject are Roxane Gay, Meg Wolitzer, VIDA, Ayelet Waldman, and many more ~ just as Gloria Steinem and Adrienne Rich and others wrote in the 70s and 80s till now. Websites like the Art of Manliness talk a lot about the ideals of masculinity.

A thorny subject.  What do you think about all this?

April 18, 2012

Pink for Grace


Wearing pink today for Ann Hood's daughter Grace, who died 10 years ago today.  Ann wrote about it in her memoir Comfort.

April 17, 2012

"The Proud Farmer," by Vachel Lindsay

Yesterday I interviewed a wonderful elderly gentleman about his engineering work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  He developed a way to compost sludge (see dewatered sewage) on an industrial scale.  We moderns, so disconnected from our roots, take so much for granted ~ where we get our food, where our waste goes.  We act as if we are unconnected from those very necessary jobs.  Today, I wanted to hail the hero and heroine, the not-so-common men, the hard-working sacrificing women, in some small way.  What better way than the Prairie Troubador, Vachel Lindsay.

The Gleaners, by Jean-Francois Millet

The Proud Farmer

by Vachel Lindsay

Into the acres of the newborn state
He poured his strength, and plowed his ancient name,
And, when the traders followed him, he stood
Towering above their furtive souls and tame.

That brow without a stain, that fearless eye
Oft left the passing stranger wondering
To find such knighthood in the sprawling land,
To see a democrat well-nigh a king.

He lived with liberal hand, with guests from far,
With talk and joke and fellowship to spare, —
Watching the wide world's life from sun to sun,
Lining his walls with books from everywhere.
He read by night, he built his world by day.
The farm and house of God to him were one.
For forty years he preached and plowed and wrought —
A statesman in the fields, who bent to none.

His plowmen-neighbors were as lords to him.
His was an ironside, democratic pride.
He served a rigid Christ, but served him well —
And, for a lifetime, saved the countryside.

Here lie the dead, who gave the church their best
Under his fiery preaching of the word.
They sleep with him beneath the ragged grass...
The village withers, by his voice unstirred.

And tho' his tribe be scattered to the wind
From the Atlantic to the China sea,
Yet do they think of that bright lamp he burned
Of family worth and proud integrity.

And many a sturdy grandchild hears his name
In reverence spoken, till he feels akin
To all the lion-eyed who built the world —
And lion-dreams begin to burn within.

April 16, 2012

Excellence in Writing




Writing is a skill we can continue to hone no matter our age. The Superb Writers' Blogathon, brought to you by Grammarly grammar checker, is a web series dedicated to helping all aspiring writers achieve greatness.

I first became aware of Grammarly by their funny geeky posts on Facebook, and then they emailed to ask if I would like to participate in their Superb Writers’ Blogathon. The point is to talk about excellence in writing.  I am so on board with that!  Any time we can promote good grammar and excellent writing, I am thrilled.

When I was getting my master’s, I taught freshman composition.  I so much enjoyed it ~ meeting people with such good will and so focused on their futures and on figuring out the world.  However, they came into the classroom with such stark fear on their faces.  Someone once did a poll on what college students feared most.  Number one was nuclear war, but right after that was writing for English class.  Now that says something. 

Another thing.  Inevitably, someone would get in a jam or think they were getting away with something and would turn in a plagiarized paper.  Now I ask you: Do you think a master carpenter can tell the difference between the work of Jack Handyman and another master carpenter?  Do you think a pianist of 30 years’ experience knows the difference between the playing of a college student and someone who is her or his peer?  Can a doctor suss out the difference in effectiveness of treatment of your home remedies versus tried and true scientific method?  Well, we would certainly hope so. 

And so it was with the plagiarized papers.  Because the students couldn’t tell the difference between their own writing and the papers they plagiarized, whether it was bought from a paper mill or pulled together from sources on the net, they thought I couldn’t. 

All this to say, there are standards of excellence in writing.  Sure, there is a lot that is subjective, and once you reach a certain level, it is based more and more on personal taste, but there is a definite difference between poor, good, and great.

So what exactly is excellent writing?  Well, there are libraries full of books to tell us just that, but let me give you the three-minute version.

Clarity ~ Good writing is clear writing.  You don’t use big words to bolster your confidence or try to snow your readers.  You don’t use big words to try to make yourself sound important.  Your goal is to be as clear and straightforward as possible, using the simplest words that you can to convey your meaning.  Sometimes, though, you need to use big words, but that’s because those words fit the rhetorical situation you are in and the concepts you are trying to convey.

Precision ~ Le mot juste, or the right word.  Don’t guess when you use a word.  If you are a little hazy on its meaning, look it up.  I’ve edited seasoned professional writers who will stick a word in there that they think approximates the meaning they were searching for, but it will be all wrong.  It happens with verbs, but it also with proper names ~ in this age of the internet, you have no excuse for not looking up the exact wording or spelling of a proper name.  You don’t use a quarter inch ratchet when you need a 6 mm, and you don’t use affect when effect is the right word.

The right details ~ Along with precision comes the right details.  If your detail only does one thing in a scene, it’s not enough.  Each detail needs to do two or three or four things.  It needs to tell us about character and about setting and so much more.  Interesting and surprising and luscious details.

Muscular verbs ~ Your verbs do the work and pull the reader along.  Try to use active verbs and avoid to-be constructions when at all possible.  Related to this is to avoid passive tense as much as possible, as it leads to convolution.  This isn’t possible in all situations, as often in professional writing the doer needs to be submerged so there’s plausible deniability, but as much as possible, active verbs.

Structure ~ Having a predictable structure makes it easy for your reader to follow your thoughts.  We’ve all read those impenetrable papers.  If you’re writing nonfiction, the structure of a thesis-based essay is not a bad place to start.  The first part is a hook to draw your reader in and ends with a bald statement of your assertion or thesis.  Then the sections below each have their own assertion that supports the thesis and each paragraph has a strong topic sentence followed by rich evidence. You end where you started ~ at your thesis ~ but watch out because you’ll often argue yourself into a slightly different place.  For fiction and other forms of writing, structure is just as important. Study your writing heroes for their tricks.

Unity ~ I would tell my students, a piece of writing is like a well-designed tool ~ everything in it is there for a purpose.  Nothing is just thrown in for good measure.  That is, it’s unified.  It all has a reason, and you don’t just throw something in that you think will be interesting. If you have a sneaking suspicion that it needs to be left out, it does.

Coherence ~ I don’t mean as opposed to incoherent, the general term for confusing, but rather the technical writing term that means everything in the right order.  You should have an order in mind (chronological, theme, frame structure, whatever) and then follow through on it.  This is often a problem in technical writing where the writer doesn’t follow an overall plan. You’re teaching your reader your structure from your very first line, so it’s important to set it up and telegraph it to the reader so they know what’s coming.  And for heaven’s sake if you set it up one way, follow through.

Development ~ A few people are blessed with the ability to go on and on (and they become English majors) but everyone else tends to write short.  Things have to be adequately explained, or developed.  Topic sentences need to be supported with evidence.  The argument needs to move forward slowly and steadily.  In fiction, your readers need all the help they can get ~ don’t keep them guessing.  Of course, you may also have to trim, but err on the side of development, especially on the first draft.

Awareness of audience ~ You’re not writing to a void.  The point of writing is to communicate and so be aware of the audience or audiences you are writing for and make it as easy for them as possible.  Give them credit for intelligence, but don’t make it hard for them. Think about their vocabulary and what they know and don’t know.  In fact, every writing situation you are in, you should first ask, “Who is my audience?” and then you need to adjust your rhetorical stance to best reach them.  How do you hook them?  Are you addressing two audiences with opposing views, which is very difficult?  Perhaps you should bury your thesis toward the end and try to get people on board before you baldly state your objective.

Style ~ It’s hard to talk about style.  It is the ineffable.  But, whether fiction or nonfiction, the best way to develop your style is to start by mimicking the greats.  Try to write like your writer heroes.  If you like spare, try Hemingway.  If you like lush, try David Foster Wallace.  If you’re trying to combine storytelling and magazine style, try the wonderful Susan Orlean.  If you’re working on hard-hitting news reporting, read the major papers. Whomever. And don’t be afraid to experiment, but know that part of the learning process in anything is failure, so don’t be precious about it and throw out what doesn’t work and keep going.

Be interesting ~ One of the things freshman have a hard time getting to is that their work needs to be interesting.  Unpredictable.  Surprising.  That’s why the five-paragraph essay can be deadly because they don’t reach, they don’t surprise themselves, and the reader is left to yawn.  This is part of audience awareness too.  This is a good one for fiction writers ~ you need to follow your genre but you also need to be above all interesting, to vary the convention.  Ask yourself: has this been done millions of times before? Always, always, push yourself and your ideas.

So, how can we achieve excellent writing?  Lots and lots of lots of work.  10,000 hours, as Malcolm Gladwell says.  You need to revise everything you write.  You need to get feedback from your friends who are writers.  You need to read extensively, in your genre and grammar books and dictionaries and the OED, for heaven’s sake.  Strunk and White is your bible.  Words need to become the tools that you know inside and out, their connotations, their denotations, their matrilineal ancestry, and where they like to hang out and have a beer. 

You are a carpenter of words, my friend, and whether you are bent on a bird house or the Taj Mahal, do the work to make it the finest you can.

April 13, 2012

20 Contemporary Western Writers You Should Be Reading


Flavorwire recently put up this great post: 10 Contemporary Southern Authors You Should Be Reading.  Living breathing authors doing great work as we speak! 
 
That got me thinking.  Why not do a Contemporary Western Authors? 

Of course, by that I mean writers who live in or are from or write a lot about the American West.  I don’t mean just authors who write the genre of Westerns. (Why isn’t there a genre called Southerns that includes Gone with the Wind and The March?)

And I couldn’t limit myself to just 10, but I had to stop somewhere, so I limited it to 10 women and 10 men.  I’m leaving all kinds of wonderful writers ~ people who haven’t published a lot yet or who are very well established.  I wanted to highlight people with whom you may not be familiar.


1.      Lucy Jane Bledsoe ~ I first became aware of Lucy through her wonderful and haunting short story “Girl with Boat,” which won the 2009 Arts & Letters Fiction Prize, and I had the great good fortune of meeting her at AWP.  You might want to check out her novel The Big Bang Symphony, about three women in the Antarctic. Her stories are often women facing deep issues in remote places.

2.      Alyson Hagy ~ I took my very first fiction workshop from Alyson.  What a great person and wonderful mentor.  Her short story collection Ghosts of Wyoming are single-handedly the best Wyoming stories I’ve read, and you also should check out the novel Snow, Ashes.  Her new novel Boleto will be coming out soon. She writes with such grace.

3.      Eowyn Ivey ~ I can claim her, can’t I? Even though she’s from Alaska?  I was wandering down the street at AWP in Denver and came across her and her mom Julie LeMay and we had a great chat while walking to an off-site event.  Her new novel The Snow Child is a must-read, which is about homesteading in Alaska and a child from the snow.

4.      Aryn Kyle ~ I’ve been a big fan of Aryn’s ever since the short story “Foaling Season” in the Atlantic.  This story became her wonderful novel The God of Animals, and she will a new one, Hinterland, coming out soon. Her writing the West is wonderful.

5.      Maile Meloy ~ Oh, how I wish I could say I knew Maile Meloy in person!  I’ve devoured her short story collections for years, as well as her novels.  Her Montana aesthetic is much like my own.  If I were you, I’d start with her collections Half in Love and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. Her writing the West is also wonderful:  “If you're white, and you're not rich or poor but somewhere in the middle, it's hard to have worse luck than to be born a girl on a ranch." Her YA novel The Apothecary just won a prize too.

6.      MaryJane Nealon ~ I met MaryJane at Bread Loaf last year. Her reading had every single person in the audience with tears streaming down their faces.  Her memoir about nursing, Beautiful Unbroken, is so moving and fabulous ~ about nursing AIDS patents at the beginning of the epidemic. She's also a poet, not to mention the smartest and nicest person ever.  I look forward to her many great works.

7.      Gina Oschner ~ I first read Gina in the New Yorker with her story “The Fractious South.”  What a great story. There was another story about a widow that sticks with me, though I can’t recall the name.  The collection People I Wanted to Be would be a good place to start. Her stories are Old World and intricate and full of interesting characters.

8.      Paisley Rekdal ~ Paisley is a poet and essayist who taught here at UW. She’s so smart and funny and lovely.  I’d recommend starting with her poetry collection A Crash of Rhinos or Six Girls Without Pants or her essay collection The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee. She writes about race and identity and sexuality.

9.      Lee Ann Roripaugh ~ Lee Ann is the editor of the South Dakota Review and recently took a story of mine (thank you!).  I love her playfulness with language and her humor and her “conversations with my Japanese mother.” I would recommend starting with her collection Beyond Heart Mountain or Year of the Snake. She has written about Wyoming’s Heart Mountain Relocation Center and about mixed race identity, among other things.

10.  Cheryl Strayed ~ Who doesn’t love the wonderful Cheryl?  She came out on Valentine’s Day as Dear Sugar from theRumpus.net.  Have you read Dear Sugar?  Oh, you simply must.  A fabulous cross between advice column and personal essay.  Cheryl’s memoir The Wild just came out.  She lost her mother when she was young, and the memoir is about her hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and grieving.  It sounds bleak, but you have to know Cheryl’s writing.  She’s so supportive but also brave and honest and not at all afraid to call you on your shit.

11.  Kevin Canty ~ Kevin belongs to the wonderful tradition of writers of the west like Jim Harrison and Tom McGuane.  A down-to-earth spare style and so wonderful. I first met Kevin at AWP, where a bunch of us drank lots of wine and ate lots of Italian food. Fond memories.  I would recommend his latest novel Everything.  

12.  Rick Bass ~ Oh, how I am in love with Rick’s writing!  He is a writers’ writer in many ways because of his fabulous use of nature as an the extended metaphor.  Mythical, someone called them.  One of my very favorite short stories of all time is his “The Hermit’s Story.”  I got to see him at a lovely little conference in Cheyenne, and I was rapt the whole time.  Pick up anything by him ~ The Hermit’s Story collection is a good place to start.

13.  Charles D’Ambrosio ~ I first came across Charles ~ I hesitate to call him Charlie since I don't know him ~ in the New Yorker, his story “The Bone Game.”  It’s one of those that I still remember where I was when I read it (in a café, as it happens) and the illustration that accompanied it (her hair).  And then “The Screenwriter” is a another wonderful tale.  Charles is darkly funny and wonderful.  I met him briefly at the Tin House conference and loved his readings.  I’d recommend starting with his collection Dead Fish Museum.

14.  Anthony Doerr ~ What’s not to love? I’ve been a Tony acolyte for ages, ever since I read his story “The Shell Collector.”  Shall I count the ways?  This story is actually structured like a shell. Amazing.  I got to see him read here in Laramie and I also ran into him at Tin House.  He is also a writers’ writer, his prose layered and deep, but his readings are great fun. I’d highly recommend the collection The Shell Collector and also his memoir Four Seasons in Rome about his time there with young twins after winning the Rome Prize.

15.  Alan Heathcock ~ One of the nicest guys, with really cool shoes and hats!  I met him at Bread Loaf.  He writes wonderfully bleak stories.  I would recommend picking up his collection Volt.

16. Tom McGuane ~ I love his stories because they cover the territory of my youth ~ ranch life.  He nails the language and the characters.  I know these people.  So many great stories in the New Yorker (“Cowboy,” for example), and I even got to work with him when he visited UW for a bit.  You can’t go wrong ~ pick up Gallatin Canyon or The Cadence of Grass.

17.  Benjamin Percy ~ Funny story.  I read this great short story in the Paris Review called “Somebody Is Going to Have to Pay for This” and then another story in Swink called “The Bearded Lady Says Goodnight” and then another story in the Paris Review called “Refresh, Refresh” and only then did I put it all together that it was the kickass Benjamin Percy.  His stories are haunting ~ “The Caves of Oregon” and one about electrical lines and “James Franco” stick in my memory.  And if you go to a reading of his, wow!, he has the voice of GOD. Amazing stuff.  I’d recommend the collection Refresh, Refresh or his novel The Wilding.

18.  Shann Ray ~ I first became aware of Shann when I entered the Bread Loaf Bakeless Prize and he won. Then I emailed and got to know him that way. Then I had the very great pleasure of being able to hang out with him at Bread Loaf.  His work is masculine and violent and dark but with little glimpses of light.  He is a professor of foregiveness studies ~ I love that ~ and you can see it permeate his work. You have to read American Masculine. I adore Shann.

19.  Luis Alberto Urrea ~ Well, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, of course!  Luis is not only a fabulous writer but also a fabulous human being.  I was in his workshop at Bread Loaf.  He’s so supportive and gives the single most entertaining reading, without a script mind you, of anyone I’ve ever seen.  His works are mythical and wonderful folk tales of Mexico.  I have to thank Luis from the bottom of my heart for his kind words when I was having a severe crisis of confidence.  He is not only a great writer but truly the Rennaissance man.

20.  Brad Watson ~ We can claim him here in the West, can’t we?  Brad teaches at UW and writes these great southern stories, which almost all have a dog in them.  Complex and stylistic yet moving.  I love and would recommend his novel The Heaven of Mercury and his short story collection Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives.

You worn out yet?

Oh, and I haven’t included established greats like Lance Olsen, who just won a Guggenheim, and Annie Proulx and Gretel Erlich and Whitney Otto and Chitra Divakaruni and Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry and Tobias Wolff and Walter Kirn and Jim Harrison and Red Shuttleworth and Robert Roripaugh and James Galvin and Kevin McIlvoy and Christopher Coake and Mark Spragg and Kent Haruff and CJ Box and ... 

And I haven’t included these friends who are just getting started in their careers or are farther along ~ Nina McConigley and David Abrams and Jenny Shank and Ken Olsen and Pembroke Sinclair and Twister Marquiss and Bonnie ZoBell and Ray Norsworthy and Katrina Denza and Russell Rowland and Chavawn Kelly and Caskey Russell and Jenn Koiter and Amy Staehr and Mike Brotherton and Lori Howe and Michael Selmer and Beth Loffreda and Jonathan Evison and Jenn Percy and Daisy Hickman and Jon Billman and Laura Bell and Nell Hanley and Laura Munson and Seth Brady Tucker and Court Merrigan and Brad Green and Jeffe Kennedy and Callan Wink and Melissa Crytzer Fry and Monica Drake and … Sorry if your name isn’t here!!

Happy reading!  Isn't it always?

April 12, 2012

The Titanic Centennial

The Alleged Culprit, from Boston.com

Enough ponderous pontification!  How about that Titanic centennial!  There’s been a lot of great links lately, so here’s a roundup.

·         http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RMS_Titanic ~ The wiki entry to give you some background.
·         http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/04/16/120416fa_fact_mendelsohn ~ The first of two exceptional links.  The fabulous New Yorker article about the cultural impact of the disaster.
·         http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2012/04/the_titanic_at_100_years.html ~ The second of two exceptional links.  Boston.com’s indepth look with exceptional photos.
·         http://www.rmstitanic.net/ and http://www.titanic.com/ and http://www.titanic1.org/ ~ Links all about the Titanic.
·         http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/04/titanic/titanic-photography ~ photography of the wreck.
·         http://www.titanic-facts.com/ ~ facts about the Titanic.
·         http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120338/ ~ The 1997 blockbuster movie.
·         http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/47020850/ns/technology_and_science-science/ ~ Was Titanic’s sinking more than human folly?
·         http://news.discovery.com/titanic/ ~ A collection of articles by Discovery.
·         http://www.titanicinquiry.org/ ~ Inquiries into the disaster.
·         http://www.the-titanic.com/Home.aspx ~ Titanic stories from Ireland.
·         http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/17488357 ~ Titanic 100 from the BBC.

The writer Teju Cole @tejucole, who tweets the ironies of newspapers of 100 years ago in “small fates,” says he might tweet about it, too.  I can’t wait.

Down the virtual rabbithole!

April 11, 2012

You Can’t Write the ‘Great American Novel’ ~ Nor Should You Try To



Today, I’ll wrap up my ideas on Yareah Magazine’s lovely post.


Define ‘art’ today is much more difficult than ‘photography’ but one thing is certain: art goes beyond the artist, it has a desire for transcendence and for expressing general feelings (an almost impossible task, strenuous, which has left many people on the road).

OMG.  Do I really want to take on the definition of great art? So many have eloquently said so much about the topic.  And have said it so much better than I would ever be able to.  But ~ you knew this was coming ~ let me offer a few cogitations.

The best art moves you in some way.  Emotionally.  Intellectually. Or both.

As such, it is highly individual and subjective.  Beauty ~ or greatness ~ is in the eye of the beholder.  (It's not totally artistic anarchy. Yes, there are standards, but ... )

You cannot create “canonical” art.  These things are established by societal consensus, or by a small group of tastemakers, and you the artist have little influence over it.  You can try to put yourself in the right place at the right time, try to connect with the right people, create lots of stuff and get very good, and by sheer force of your personality influence the tides. It works for a select few.  However, if you’re trying to imitate the established greats, you’re living in the past because it takes time, sometimes long after a person’s dead, to become canonical. “Time is a sort of a river.”

As Isabel says, by being particular, the best art becomes universal.  It is ironic that trying for the general will not make it universal, merely bad.  Only by trying for the very specific with the very best style and craft you can master do you approach universality.

You cannot judge your own work. Let me say that again:  You cannot judge your own work.  I don’t mean to say you can’t figure out what’s bad and what’s good and do better.  By that I mean, if you’re trying to make something “great” you’re off base.  Because great is judged by a whole bunch of other people.  You can offer an educated guess, but you cannot create societal consensus, especially about your own work. We have to let that go.

Which leads me to this last, and then I’ll stop pontificating on the subject.  The only great art, the best great art, you can create is that which is true to you.  It is our own worldviews, our personal truths, that which is so true you cannot approach it without your stomach balled in a fist, your heart pounding, your shoulders tight with shame, tears welling up within you. 

(Note to self: resist temptation to undermine your words with self-deprecation.  Oops.  There I went and did it.)

April 10, 2012

What Am I Trying To Do?

Over the weekend, Yareah Magazine posted my collage “Lover” and the lovely Isabel wrote an insightful commentary. I wanted to expand on what she said, starting yesterday.

Isn’t it funny how a person’s aesthetic extends throughout his or her life?

Isabel wrote,
When I see Tamara Linse’s photos (http://tamara-linse.blogspot.com.es/p/project-365.html), I see a refined practice and a strange desire of questioning us. Sometimes, she takes only a detail, and forces our imagination to complete the whole picture. Other times, she takes an enormous landscape and we have to put the details, carefully, stone by stone, step by step. No people in her photos. Why? Because we are the people, who suffer or enjoy the situation and in the end, who feel: an artistic achievement? For sure.

(First of all, thank you so much for your kind words, Isabel!)

This got me wondering about what the heck am I trying to do?  It’s like the definition of porn: I know it when I see it.  Well, let me think out loud about a few photos. 


I like finding things that are amusing.  I’m not looking for a belly laugh ~ not isn’t-this-person-a-geek-and-don’t-I-feel-better-than-them kind of stuff.  Little quirky things, little glimpses of light.  (One of the critiques I have of some well-known western writers is that their stuff is so unremittingly dark.  I want moments of light in my work because then you feel the dark so much more fully.)


Sometimes you just get a perfect knock-your-socks-off metaphor.  Here the church steeple juxtaposed against the glowering sky hits something deep and primal within us.


I like color.  We have this preconceived notion that nature is boring and monochromatic and not nearly as exciting as our urban neon.  But Mother Nature is surprising in the range of colors she offers and beauty it brings.



Composition makes all the difference.  The way you clip the image.  If I had centered this little guy, it would be just another photo of just another squirrel.  Ho hum.  But by creating edge anxiety by placing him so close to two sides and then giving so much asphalt (is a car coming?!), it lends the photo drama and tension and maybe even a bit of storyline.



Speaking of storyline, I love images that hint at stories.  What happened here?  The imagination runs wild.  A young guy and his friend peeling out, almost rolling, sitting there, eyes wide, "Shit." Or a wife had a fight with her husband and overcorrected at a phantom, which makes her realize life's too short. Or something else.


I like focusing in on details.  There’s subtle beauty all around us, but we just don’t pay attention to it.  I’ve long thought that miracles are not large things, like the parting of the Red Sea.  No, they happen in tiny ways all the time.  The miracle of beauty.  The miracle of a friend’s smile.  The miracle of a flower bud.  And, you know, it’s details that make great art.  Generalizations bad, surprising details good.


Finally, this is the only picture of a person I have posted.  Isabel is right.  No people.  Why is that?  My stories are minutely interested in people.  Well, I’m really shy about asking people to take their photographs.  If this weren’t the case, I imagine all my images would be about people.  But I feel like I’m imposing. These guys, when I pantomimed to ask permission through the window, were so welcoming and generous.  As you can see on his face.

I wanted to wrap up by saying, these aspects of aesthetics run through all my creative endeavors. In my photos and my writing, I like to include light and dark, though I am very much drawn to the subtle deep dark.  I love writing that has wonderful metaphor at a sentence level and at a structural level. Color ~ the more visual you can be in your writing, the more you put in five senses, the more you carry the reader along with detail move by move, the better experience they’ll have. Composition ~ you have to leave the wrong stuff out and put in the right stuff.  The question is, which is which? And of course, you want to tell a story in your writing (perhaps some literary writers forget this). Subtle details are the absolute most important thing in writing.  And, finally, people.  This is where my writing differs from the photos.  I am fascinated with the small violences and small graces we bestow upon one another.  That’s what I’m trying to capture in my writing.

And so my aesthetic seems to run through everything I do.  As does yours.  This is what you offer the world ~ you and only you.  Your peculiar and wonderful worldview.