April 30, 2010


On the lighter side, here's a poem I wrote in high school.


Has ruined my concentration
And kept me awake at night
But, you know, the funny thing is
I don't hate it as much as I might.

PS My story "Exit Wounds" is up at Imitation Fruit! Thanks so much, Eva, Jenny, and John!

April 29, 2010

Upgrading ...

I just wanted to let everyone know that I'm going to be attempting a retool of this blog over the weekend. The changes ~ hopefully! ~ will not be visible to you; rather, they'll be behind the scenes and have to do with links and frames and software. However, if I get in too deep, blogging may be slow at the beginning of next week.

Geek Heaven

Yesterday, I had a long-running conversation with someone about the hyphenation of adjective phrases before a noun. Oh, my writer/editor geek was just wallowing in the mud of hog heaven. I deliciously reacquainted myself with The Chicago Manual of Style (14th Edition) Sections 6.38 through 6.40 and avidly perused Table 6.1.

I had had the general rule in my mind (less is more, only hyphenate for clarity or according to a few guidelines, don’t hyphenate if the adjective phrase follows the noun), but I had forgotten the reasoning behind it. I rediscovered its simplicity, its elegance, and the clear and precise words that conveyed these ideas, and I quote:

For some years now, the trend in spelling compound words has been away from the use of hyphens. … A second helpful principle is this: When a temporary compound is used as an adjective before a noun, it is often hyphenated to avoid misleading the reader. … Formerly, adjectival compounds, except those beginning with an adverb ending in ly, were generally hyphenated before the noun they modified and open after the noun. The University of Chicago Press now takes the position that the hyphen may be omitted in all cases where there is little or no risk of ambiguity or hesitation.

Oooooooooh! Doesn’t the precision of the language just make you shivery all over?

Take the phrase fast sailing ship (CMS’s example). Is it a sailing ship that’s fast (in this case, no hyphen) or a ship that’s fast sailing (in this case, fast-sailing ship).

Table 6.1 has these fabulous descriptions of what to do if the adjective phrase consists of an adjective or participle plus a noun or an adverb plus a participle or adjective, each with great examples. But the phrases we were discussing were pulled from technical writing and were adjective phrases of noun plus noun referring to a noun ~ phrases like time structure map and reflection strength trace.

Some of the people we were talking with were scientists, so their considerations were more about how the meaning of the phrase was reflected in the punctuating mark. For example, does inserting a hyphen mean that each word is its own attribute to the noun or does it mean that they work together? Someone suggested using a forward slash. What does that mean when you insert a slash? Does it mean that the two things are opposite or the same thing? Does it mean that they are either/or?

As an aside, when I used to teach freshman comp and scientific and technical writing, I had a day where I talked about the meaning of a period and a comma and a semicolon as if they were road signs. Students seemed to understand and to dig it.

This discussion was why I returned to CMS. I knew that there was a grammatical reason for hyphenation relating to the function of the word in the sentence but I couldn’t explain it. I had to remind myself of the difference between a noun and an adjective. Wikipedia has a great entry under adjective about this:

In many languages, including English, it is possible for nouns to modify other nouns. Unlike adjectives, nouns acting as modifiers (called attributive nouns or noun adjuncts) are not predicative; a beautiful park is beautiful, but a car park is not "car". In English, the modifier often indicates origin ("Virginia reel"), purpose ("work clothes"), or semantic patient ("man eater"). However, it can generally indicate almost any semantic relationship.

So the test is to put the word after a to be verb: the [modifier] [noun] is [modifier]. So time and structure are both nouns because a time map is not time and a structure map is not structure. Likewise, a reflection trace is not reflection and a strength trace is not strength. But we could say that a strong trace is strong, and therefore strong is an adjective.

So, should time structure map and reflection strength trace be hyphenated? I first considered the rule that the simplest solution or least invasive is the best (the Occam’s Razor of grammar). So I think that time structure map is perfectly fine not to hyphenate. I tested this by asking: is it a structure map of time or a map of structure and time? It was the latter so it’s fine to leave the hyphen out.

The phrase reflection strength trace is a little different, I think. There is ambiguity there. Is it a strength trace of reflection? Or is it a trace of reflection strength? In the former case I think you’d use the phrase reflection strength trace ~ or if you really wanted to be clear, reflection strength-trace ~ and in the latter case you’d use reflection-strength trace.

What I’m Reading Today: I officially have a professional crush on Ian McEwan! He’s definitely in the pantheon of Virginia Woolf and Julian Barnes. I had read Saturday before and loved it, and now I gulped down On Chesil Beach in two nights. Oh, to be able to trace the motives and reactions of two people with such detailed and nuanced precision! To seem to be ruminating yet the reader is transfixed by the inexorable forward movement! On Chesil Beach (and probably a mild fever) gave me dreams that were both troubling and poignant.

April 28, 2010

Focus ~ A Guest Post by Len Joy

Our excellent Cool Person Guest Blogger today is Len Joy. I met Len at the Tin House Writer’s Conference a couple of years ago when we were in the same novel workshop. His kickass fiction has that wonderful understated quietness that I like (a la Tom McGuane or William Kittredge), but it’s also very funny. He’s been published in Pindeldyboz, Hobart, 3AM Magazine, Slow Trains, and Boston Literary Magazine, among others. Last year several of his short fiction pieces were published by Bannock Street Books as part of a themed collection on “Work.” An excerpt from his novel-in-progress, “American Jukebox,” was published by Annalemma Magazine in 2009. Len lives in Evanston, Illinois, with his wife, Suzanne. Their son, Stephen, is a chemistry graduate student at NYU and their two daughters, Nicole and Christie, are in the fashion industry in Chicago. For over fifteen years he operated his own auto remanufacturing plants across the country. I urge you to check out his great blog, “Do Not Go Gentle…,” which chronicles his writing and his pursuit of USA Triathlon Age-Group Championships.

I was honored earlier this week when Tamara invited me to be one of her Cool Person Guest Bloggers. I’m definitely a cool person. One of my daughters once told her mom that “even Dad is cooler than you,” which is pretty solid evidence, I think. However, just to be safe, I’m completing my guest assignment before Tamara has second thoughts.

In my blog, “Do Not Go Gentle,” I chronicle my efforts to become an age-group competitive triathlete and a writer. While the activities have obvious differences, the endeavors do complement each other and my triathlon experience has helped me to develop as a writer.

Five years ago, on a whim, I signed up for a sprint triathlon (400 yards in a pool, 12-mile bike ride, 3.1-mile run). I figured it wouldn’t be that difficult as I knew how to swim, bike, and run. I just hadn’t ever had any reason to do all three at once. It does make a difference. As Donald Rumsfeld liked to say, there are things we know we don’t know and then there are those things that we don’t know we don’t know. Before my first triathlon I didn’t know there was such a thing as a triathlon suit so after my swim, I changed from my soggy swimsuit to running shorts in the, fortunately not very populated, transition area.

Not knowing anything is a big advantage when you’re getting started. Ignorance allowed me to enter the race and by the time I finished I was exhausted, but hooked. Started reading about the sport ~ learned important stuff such as don’t wear socks and don’t bother drying off after the swim and use shoelaces you don’t have to tie.

All on my own, I improved. In my second year I finished in the top three for my age group in all my races and even took a first in one of the smaller local sprints. Of course I’m in the 55- to 59-year age group so there are only a few survivors still competing.

Three years ago I decided to try an Olympic distance race (0.9-mile swim, 25-mile bike, 6.2-mile run). I signed up for the Chicago Accenture Triathlon ~ the largest triathlon in the country with over seven thousand participants. Swimming was my weakest event. The sprints all took place in rec center swimming pools. The Accenture was nearly a mile in Lake Michigan. I bought a wetsuit and decided I should probably try it out before the race. So one morning I got up early and drove to the lake. The waves were a foot high so I went home. The next day it was calm, but then I discovered I needed someone to help me zip my wetsuit. I recruited an early morning jogger to help me and was able to get one practice swim in before the race.

The open water swim was a learning experience. I learned I should have waited for everyone to start so they didn’t all have to swim over the top of me. And I learned a mile is a long distance to swim. I was so happy to survive the swim that I got on my bike and start pedaling like it was a five mile race. And I had a really good time for the first five miles, but unfortunately the course went on for another twenty miles.

It was noon by the time I started the run. It was hot and I wasn’t prepared to run six miles after a long bike ride. It took me over three hours to finish the race, almost an hour longer than the top finishers in my age group.

After the race I thought about what I needed to do become competitive and realized I had no idea. So I hired a coach. Craig Strong (Precision Multisport) happened to be the instructor for the Masters swim class at the Evanston Y. With Craig’s guidance I’ve learned how to train, upgraded my equipment, even started to pay attention to nutritional needs. This March I took a 3rd place in the Lake Havasu Triathlon and later this summer I plan to compete in my first Half-Ironman triathlon (1.2-mile swim, 52-mile bike, 13.2-mile run).

My writing career has followed a similar arc. Six years ago on a whim I took a writing course at the University of Chicago’s Writer’s Studio. I’d always had a vague desire to be a writer, but needed a push. After the first course, I was encouraged enough to take another course and then another. That summer I went to the Iowa Writer’s Festival for a week and a year later to Tin House (where I met Tamara). This year I plan to attend the New York State Writers Institute at Skidmore and I won a scholarship to the Norman Mailer Writers Colony in Cape Cod. That should be fun.

As it was with triathlons, when I started I was benevolently ignorant. After that first year I thought I was ready to write a novel, and I did. Four years later, I’m still writing that novel. I guess I’m not going to be an overnight success.

But like training for a race or raising kids, the reward is in the journey.

Len, I am convinced that you’ll be an overnight success someday, but it may take a few years (even though I think your work is deserves it already)! Thank you for the great post!

PS Len had some beautiful photos of his kids to include, but I am unable to get photos to post right now. I will work on this. Sorry!

PPS To see the photos, go to Len's blog here.

April 27, 2010


There was a great comment trail on my friend Brad Green’s Facebook page recently that started with his comment:

Who here believes a writer should cut all that they love from their book? Does anyone follow the "kill your darlings" method? How do you do this and not end up hating what you've done, or worse, being bored by it?

A fascinating writing discussion ensued.

But Brad said something that I really like but wanted to expand on. He said:

Taken baldly, how many words does it take to describe a sunny beach anyway? Two. All else is excess. However, this is a thing to which I don't subscribe. If that methodology worked for everything, just imagine the repercussions to foreplay! One can be marginally inefficient and clear at the same time. Beauty lies somewhere within that overlap. It takes as many words as it needs. Occasionally, the force of an image or metaphor needs to sprawl. Sometimes it contracts and it's sharp as a whip crack. Beauty conforms to context or it's not beautiful.

I love it ~ “just imagine the repercussions to foreplay!” And then, wow, “Beauty lies somewhere within that overlap.”

I wholeheartedy agree with what Brad says. The way something is worded is so specific to the individual situation and one can’t say that one pattern fits all, or even some. You need the sparity of Hemingway and you need the liquid precision of Woolf. You need David Foster Wallace’s almost claustrophobic attention to specificity to balance Annie Proulx’s smooth glide through vast periods of time.

But I wanted to talk a little bit about where this language comes from as we’re writing. I know that I’ve read lots of beautiful elegant prose that sings in rhythm but lies lifeless in meaning and impact. I was at a panel reading recently where all but one of the readers’ works were so real and honest and clear and their prose was so beautiful and meaningful. That one reader, though, was so in love with language that, though her prose had beautiful trills and bells and whistles, its meaning was so hard to decipher that it essentially had no impact. And the contrast with the other readers was stark.

So what I’m saying is that when I’m writing I don’t think the first concern should be the deliberate consideration of what metaphor to use here, of writerliness, of an imposed structure, of forcing this thing into this story or this story into this thing. I shouldn’t be thinking about that so much as the needs of the character and what’s happening in the story. Beautiful language will arise naturally, but organically in the composition more so than me trying to insert it or think it through. It often needs to arise from within, and I need to trust my unconscious for the powerful thing that it is.

As a caveat, though, I don’t discount the use of a metaphor or a structure or something writerly as an inspiration or guiding force. I just think I need to always be mindful of the actual story I’m writing ~ not what I want it to be ~ and to let it change and evolve.

My final thought about this: I think the aim should be clarity of expression, rather than beautiful words. There will be beautiful words if you are clear.

What I’m Reading Today: Yesterday, I stayed home with the rock-bottom flu. I felt as bad as I’ve felt in a long time over the weekend. Achy and head-achy, deep hacking coughs, blowing my nose all the time, bone-tired. Then yesterday I took a hot plumeria-scented bubble bath and read the short story “The Van Gogh Field” in William Kittredge’s Best Stories. That story. Something so beautiful and ineffable about it. The experience changed me and moved me and healed me and inspired me. I wanted to freeze time.

April 26, 2010


Sorry, sick today, so no post. However ~ so that you can deliciously anticipate ~ coming soon: a Cool Person Guest Blogger!

April 23, 2010


One of my favorite poems. (Via Bartleby)


by William Wordsworth


THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;--
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.


The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where'er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.


Now, while the birds thus sing a joyous song,
And while the young lambs bound
As to the tabor's sound,
To me alone there came a thought of grief:
A timely utterance gave that thought relief,
And I again am strong:
The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep;
No more shall grief of mine the season wrong;
I hear the Echoes through the mountains throng,
The Winds come to me from the fields of sleep,
And all the earth is gay;
Land and sea
Give themselves up to jollity,
And with the heart of May
Doth every Beast keep holiday;--
Thou Child of Joy,
Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy


Ye blessed Creatures, I have heard the call
Ye to each other make; I see
The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee;
My heart is at your festival,
My head hath its coronal,
The fulness of your bliss, I feel--I feel it all.
Oh evil day! if I were sullen
While Earth herself is adorning,
This sweet May-morning,
And the Children are culling
On every side,
In a thousand valleys far and wide,
Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,
And the Babe leaps up on his Mother's arm:--
I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!
--But there's a Tree, of many, one,
A single Field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?


Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.


Earth fills her lap with pleasures of her own;
Yearnings she hath in her own natural kind,
And, even with something of a Mother's mind,
And no unworthy aim,
The homely Nurse doth all she can
To make her Foster-child, her Inmate Man,
Forget the glories he hath known,
And that imperial palace whence he came.


Behold the Child among his new-born blisses,
A six years' Darling of a pigmy size!
See, where 'mid work of his own hand he lies,
Fretted by sallies of his mother's kisses,
With light upon him from his father's eyes!
See, at his feet, some little plan or chart,
Some fragment from his dream of human life,
Shaped by himself with newly-learned art;
A wedding or a festival,
A mourning or a funeral;
And this hath now his heart,
And unto this he frames his song:
Then will he fit his tongue
To dialogues of business, love, or strife;
But it will not be long
Ere this be thrown aside,
And with new joy and pride
The little Actor cons another part;
Filling from time to time his "humorous stage"
With all the Persons, down to palsied Age,
That Life brings with her in her equipage;
As if his whole vocation
Were endless imitation.


Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie
Thy Soul's immensity;
Thou best Philosopher, who yet dost keep
Thy heritage, thou Eye among the blind,
That, deaf and silent, read'st the eternal deep,
Haunted for ever by the eternal mind,--
Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!
On whom those truths do rest,
Which we are toiling all our lives to find,
In darkness lost, the darkness of the grave;
Thou, over whom thy Immortality
Broods like the Day, a Master o'er a Slave,
A Presence which is not to be put by;
Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might
Of heaven-born freedom on thy being's height,
Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke
The years to bring the inevitable yoke,
Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?
Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight,
And custom lie upon thee with a weight
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!


O joy! that in our embers
Is something that doth live,
That nature yet remembers
What was so fugitive!
The thought of our past years in me doth breed
Perpetual benediction: not indeed
For that which is most worthy to be blest--
Delight and liberty, the simple creed
Of Childhood, whether busy or at rest,
With new-fledged hope still fluttering in his breast:--
Not for these I raise
The song of thanks and praise;
But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised,
High instincts before which our mortal Nature
Did tremble like a guilty Thing surprised:
But for those first affections,
Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain light of all our day,
Are yet a master light of all our seeing;
Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
To perish never;
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,
Nor Man nor Boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!
Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.


Then sing, ye Birds, sing, sing a joyous song!
And let the young Lambs bound
As to the tabor's sound!
We in thought will join your throng,
Ye that pipe and ye that play,
Ye that through your hearts to-day
Feel the gladness of the May!
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.


And O, ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves,
Forebode not any severing of our loves!
Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might;
I only have relinquished one delight
To live beneath your more habitual sway.
I love the Brooks which down their channels fret,
Even more than when I tripped lightly as they;
The innocent brightness of a new-born Day
Is lovely yet;
The Clouds that gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober colouring from an eye
That hath kept watch o'er man's mortality;
Another race hath been, and other palms are won.
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

April 22, 2010

The Power to Make the World

Have you ever looked at the landscape around you and tried to separate the manmade from the natural? Have you ever taken a trip to the wilderness and wondered if you were the only person ever to see this particular beautiful view?

The hand ~ and eyes ~ of man is everywhere in our world. I would guess that all vistas have been seen by a multitude of people, and that you are never “the first” to see something. Some people may find this depressing. Wait, I wanted it to be just me, they think. I wanted me to be special. But it should also be comforting, I think, that humans are humans the world over, and they seek new vistas and are ever questing and questioning. You are not alone.

Humans have a real drive to create, to push boundaries, to effect their world. They are ants making an anthill. One ant can’t do much ~ move a few small rocks ~ but an army of ants can make a mini mountain.

The human race has affected the world a lot. Even in places that seem wild, often the Park Service or Native Americans or someone has affected the landscape, even if it seems natural to the untrained eye. They may have cleared the brush to prevent forest fires or rocks that seem to be in a natural formation may be the remains of a fire ring. And in cities, of course, everything is affected.

What really strikes me is that everything ~ and I mean everything ~ created by man started in someone’s imagination. Each rock that’s moved to build a stone fence, each shovelful of dirt that’s lifted for irrigation, the ore that’s mined to create the chips that are in your computer ~ some aspect of that started in someone’s mind and then another person’s mind expanded on it and then another until we have this amazing technological innovation or these beautiful cities.

Think about it. Each little ant moves its little rock, and each little human dreams his or her little dreams and applies his or her resources toward this small end. All together, they change the face of the earth. And it all began as electrical impulses, dreams, plans, in people’s minds. Talk about the power of imagination.

What I’m Reading Today: I began Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves. Lovely. I love her skill and her darkness. (Someone once told me that I write like Louise, and I can’t tell you how thrilled that makes me. I hope someday to approach her level of craft.)

April 21, 2010

The Ranch

This last weekend, I drove to northern Wyoming to the ranch where I grew up. I was taking my mom to attend the wedding of my niece’s son. Today, I thought I’d describe my impressions of returning after so many years.

Imagine a place so dry you can tell where every raindrop falls because that is where a plant struggles to survive. Open sagebrush-, juniper-, and greasewood-dotted plains and hills surrounded by navy- to slate-colored mountains that hulk in the distance. One mountain looks like a dinosaur taking a nap on its belly. The dirt shades from deep black to gray, from brick red to pale tan, from brown to white. It’s as if someone took a paintbrush to the hills and streaked them with color and then dotted them with deep green bushes. Down valleys, irrigated farmlands of electric green skirt the cottonwood-lined creeks. If you close your eyes, you can smell baking dirt, sagebrush, juniper, willow, and the wet places down by the creek. In the morning, pockets of cool intersperse with pockets of heat, and rocks are chilly to the bare feet but the dirt in the sun warms your bare toes. You can hear the sound of running water, the twee of the birds, and the buzz of insects. Every once in a while, in the evening, you can hear the distinct call of the meadowlark or the bark of a coyote. There is so little light pollution that, at night, the stars sprinkle across the whole sky and you feel like you could make your way by starlight alone. The Milky Way cuts a wide swath diagonally across the sky. At night, the crickets, one or two or three, sit outside your bedroom window and chirp and chirp, and the creek tinkles in the background. The cool of the evening feels so good after the baking of the day.

While I was there, I saw 10 or 15 pheasant strutting on the road, a wild turkey, maybe ten hawks soaring in pairs in the sky, and a herd of fat deer who lazily moved off the road. Horses and cows graze in the fields, and in the mornings tractors pulling trailers of hay go out to feed, since it’s a little early for the grass to support the animals.

Due to various reasons, this generation of my family is letting the ranch go, and it feels like the wildness, which had never really left, is reasserting itself. What was once lawn grass ~ though never country club lawn, more watered buffalograss interspersed with koche and tar weed ~ is now bare ground with the startings of sagebrush. The buildings and corrals that our grandparents so laboriously put up are board-by-board collapsing and decaying. Trees I knew and loved and climbed as a child ~ the cottonwood with the treehouse behind the house ~ has grown and died and fallen and been used for firewood. The yellow rose bush and the lilac are nothing but hulking masses of dried stalks because no one tends them. All the tree startings my mother planted and nurtured are now like child’s sticks poked into the dirt.

I don’t know whether I should draw this out to the level of metaphor. Suffice it to say that I just kept thinking about Where the Wild Things Are (both the book and the recent movie).

What I’m Reading Today: Finishing Cheston Knapp’s wonderful One Story story “A Minor Momentousness in the History of Love.” How fabulous. It’s about a tennis match between Sampras and Federer and about the intricate relationships of the people who work the court. Great job, Cheston!

April 20, 2010

AWP, Part 7, Final Thoughts

I am going to let my friend Rashena Wilson, whom I had the great pleasure to hang out with at AWP, have the last word. This is a kickass excerpt from her application to a conference and expresses so well the desire to write and why we go to conferences.

I am ready to fight. Fight who and what I’ve been, fight what I’ve been led to believe, fight to re-imagine it all. I want to fight to give voice to bad girls with good intentions like me, give voice to new possibilities, write truth to power. I want to give voice to the beauty of my people; tell their stories from grandmothers to whores. I am ready to fight my demons and enemies with deft, illuminating strokes of my pen, and even and especially fight myself. I want to fight because I am a survivor and a creator, and because I want to be a teacher and a healer for myself and hopefully others. But I need a trainer, and because [this conference] is gladiator camp for the coolest, baddest motherfuckers in all the land ~ students and teachers alike ~ this is where I want to suit up.

April 19, 2010

AWP, Part 6, The Past Is Another Country: Writing Historical Fiction

The last panel I attended was “The Past Is Another Country: Writing Historical Fiction.” Panelists were Cynthia Mahamdi, Philip Gerard, and Ron Hansen. Cynthia is a professor of English at Santa Clara University and has written a historical novel set in nineteenth century North Africa. Philip teaches at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and his books include Cape Fear Rising and Secret Soldiers: How a Troupe of American Artists, Designers and Sonic Wizards Won World War II’s Battles of Deception Against the Germans. Ron teaches at Santa Clara University and is the author of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Hitler’s Niece, among others. (Ron grew up in Omaha, where my inlaws live, and his mom was in a book group with my mother-in-law, though I met Ron for the first time at last year’s Tin House. It truly is a small world.) Each panelist read a paper, and then they all took questions.

Cynthia talked about the dangers of Orientalism ~ the depiction of Eastern cultures in the West that stereotypes and others and essentializes. In other words, we in the West have a received narrative of what people from the East are like and our stories follow that narrative without questioning or complicating it. Cynthia’s historical novel was set in North Africa in the middle of the 1800s. She wanted to tell the story of an encounter between Europeans and North Africans but she didn’t want it to follow the usual pattern: lone male European protagonist meets “exotic” culture, there is war, sultan’s daughter falls in love with him, protagonist is smarter than the North Africans and shows them something about their own culture that saves the day. You know, that old story. In other words, she wanted her story to be dialogic, not monologic. One way she accomplished this is by having two point of view characters, one from each culture.

Cynthia talked about the four obstacles she had to overcome.
1) The fact that you are writing a single character. You have to make your protagonists believable, and they can’t represent “all Europeans” or “all North Africans.” They have to be particularized and have flaws, as well as strengths. She said that characterization is process and plot. One way she overcame this problem was by having two point of view characters ~ one North African and the other European.
2) The problem is that a novel must have conflict, but the conflict between Europeans and North Africans in fiction is inevitably set up as war. Cynthia did not want it to be the traditional set up. She solved this problem by setting it in a time period of conflict with the French, so that the conflict is focused that way and her two protagonists are free to interact in new ways.
3) There is the problem of sources. When you write true historical fiction (not just fiction that is set in the past but is really about the present), all the panelists agreed that you have to do a lot of research. In her case, her sources were in English and were inevitably biased. They orientalized the North Africans. To remedy this, she did A LOT of research and looked for sources that beyond the traditional narratives.
4) Her final obstacle of was language ~ for her research and for communication among her characters and because the past is another country. You have to balance the needs of the audience with an accurate historical representation.

Ron gave a fabulous list of tips for those who want to write fiction.
1) Choose an exact period of time, and know that period in and out. You can’t choose the end of the nineteenth century; it has to be 1892 exactly. People don’t live approximately. They live in a certain year with certain world events happening around them.
2) Read everything you can about that period. Read until you start correcting the experts. Read not just histories but also things like Montgomery Ward catalogs so that you know what people wore and what tools they used. Know their clothing and culture and language.
3) When you are in the library doing research, look on the shelves near where you found your books. Inevitably there are good source material nearby, as books are shelved by subject. (This would also, apply to internet research, where you would follow links. He didn’t talk about it, but the main thing is to research to the point that you know what is accurate and what is not.)
4) After you’ve completed your first draft, return to your source material and reread it. You will find so much to add and enrich what you have but also to correct what you’ve got.
5) Some people ask: When do I know that I’ve done enough research and it’s time to start writing? He would say, when you start correcting the authorities.
6) I love this: he said, “Authenticity depends on the deft incorporation of details.” Which is true not just for historical fiction but all fiction.
7) Find and connect with real live experts on your subject. He said that he doesn’t mind talking about his work in progress, and more than once he’s been at a cocktail party and mentioned what he was working on and people have given him great information.
8 ) Read the newspapers of the time period you’re working on. For his current work, he read something like 6 months or a year of local newspapers (New York City). It will be invaluable background and will seep into your work.
9) Make a basic outline of the plot. It’ll save time and help you stick to historical fact. It doesn’t have to be detailed, just broad strokes.
10) Include only the information that is important to the plot. You’ve done all this great research, but don’t include it. That’s self-indulgent. Only include what the reader needs to know for the story.
11) Free-associate scenes that are not in the novel. In other worlds, get to know your characters from birth on. Imagine what it was like for them growing up and meeting their spouses and other pivotal moments. This most likely will not be in the novel itself, but you need to know how it forms their character.
12) When you are writing about real documented historical people, you need to be as absolutely accurate and faithful to the facts as possible. It should be consistent with the scholarship.
13) Use the Dictionary of American Slang and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to know when words come into being and whether your characters can use them.
14) To help yourself imagine your novel, make a map of the region and either make drawings or find photographs of people on which to base your characters. Having a representation of them will really help.
15) Do not put twenty-first century values onto previous generations. In other words, leave out political correctness, feminism, and other movements that happened after your characters were living.
16) Don’t give too much background too soon. Parse it out.
17) Ask questions about everything in your scenes. What are they looking at? What are they smelling? What are they thinking? Is it accurate for the time period? All this so your scenes are fully developed and realized. No anacronisms (make sure to use correct historical details).
18) “Fiction writers are truth tellers.” You can exaggerate but don’t distort or sentimentalize. Calling it fiction does not remove the responsibility to be truthful.

Philip talked about A.B. Guthrie, author of many novels of historical fiction. Guthrie asked the questions, are these characters actual figures and if so what are the limits of what we can do with them? Philip, like the other panelists, said that we need to be true to the historical record and accurately depict what happened and who these people were. I don’t remember which panelist said that a lot of people get their history through fiction and movies these days, and that is one of the reasons it is so important to be factual. Philip talked about writing his novel Cape Fear Rising, which is about an actual incident in 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina, in which a white mob killed a bunch of black people or ran them out of town. He talked a lot about how the city didn’t talk about the incident at all and about the reaction to his research and writing of the novel. Some people denied the incident, and others claimed it as their own narrative and didn’t think Philip had a right to write about it. But it had the amazing effect of dialog and reconciliation.

What I’m Reading Today: I started The Best Stories of William Kittredge. Wow! Why have I not come across him before!? I am torn between devouring them and slowly savoring them.

April 16, 2010

AWP, Part 5, Interlude

Via 32poems:

Best thing overheard yesterday: “I don’t really know what they do here, but I know they all look like they are in pain. I think they are all writers.” ~ Convention Center person answering question from a participant of the Auto Show next door

April 15, 2010

AWP, Part 4, Plot as Ritual, Not Representation

Today, I’ll go over the "Plot as Ritual, Not Representation" panel. Debra Monroe was the moderator, and the other panelists were Antonya Nelson, John Dufresne, and Lynne Barrett. Debra teaches at the MFA program at Texas State University and is the author of short story collections, novels, and a memoir. Antonya teaches at the MFA at the University of Houston and is the author of so many wonderful intense short stories that everyone wishes they’d written. John teaches at Florida International University and is one of those multitalented people who write short stories, novels, plays, and screenplays. Lynne is my good friend who teaches at Florida International University and writes these great short stories and has fun with genre. She’s even done a libretto. Each panelist read a paper on the subject, and then they took questions.

Debra said that writers sometimes think that “plot” means “predictable plot” and that “form” means “formulaic.” Every story needs a crescendo, however, and the ending of a story matters. You should have arrived at someplace different from where you started. Her point was in the title of the panel: Plot is a ritual, not a representation of reality. In fact, plot is the most unrealistic part of storytelling. Plot is the “art” part of “artifice.” How you make a story realistic is through the details and the psychological realism. Her point about plot being ritual is that it’s like a wedding or a funeral. In a wedding, like a story, everyone knows the broad outlines of what’s going on, what to expect, but each one is individualized and made specific to the characters and participants. It’s about reader/participant expectation.

Debra said that there are essentially two plots (I’m paraphrasing, so I hope I get it right and not concatenate other ideas): 1) the dramatic structure originating in the Victorian period with inciting incident, rising action or complication or development, climax, and denouement (Freytag’s pyramid) or 2) the modernists’ reinterpretation of this structure, which is inciting incident, rising action or internal tension, anticlimax, and denouement. (I hope I’m getting the terms right.) She said that today’s novel doesn’t necessarily match either of these plots but takes elements of each. She also said that the ending should be a comment on the rest of the plot and should force a reinterpretation.

Lynne’s presentation started with a story about her development as a writer, and I was so enraptured that I didn’t take a lot of notes. She and almost everyone on the panel agreed that “plot” was a dirty word when they went to school. Some teachers banned it from the workshop, and if you said it, it was as if you’d said any other four letter word. This bothered Lynne and so her ideas about plot (and genre) went underground. I wish I could regale you with her wonderful stories, but, alas, short term memory loss (can’t explain it!).

But then Lynne talked about plot being a wheel. I love this idea. (In fact, maybe I can get her to do a guest post about it!) One way for an effective plot is to end up where you began only backwards. In other words, the character has a goal at the beginning, and at the end of the story she gets the exact opposite. One of the examples Lynne used was Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” In it, the protagonist encourages his girlfriend to have an abortion so things can go back to the way they were, which she does, but as a result their relationship changed so much that he’s lost what he originally wanted. This, Lynne said, is also a good example of not having to show the whole plot sequence, but it’s all there in that scene in the train station. You only actually show a small part of the wheel.

One of the first things John said was that plot is hard! Don’t we know it. He said that plot is the organizing principle of a story. It is the gravity that holds the structure together. It’s based on the central character’s needs and desires and has a beginning, middle, and end. His plots are created out of the questions: What does this character want and why? Everything has to happen in scenes and, he likes to say, always take the path of most resistance. I love this! And then he went on this fabulous improvisation where he created the plot of a novel from the simple premise of a woman in her kitchen and her husband is going to leave her. I can’t express how magical it was to have him talk through the creation of scenes, of point of view, of details in the room, of developments. She has this motive so she does this, and as a consequence he reacts this way. He does this so that means his motive is this. And so on. You had to be there. I could’ve listened to it for hours. Later in the Q&A, he talked about how plot, or setting up a series of scenes, is like letting loose an arrow. You point it in a direction with your first scene and let it fly/develop. I could definitely see this in how he talked through his process.

Antonya (I hesitate to call her Tony, as we’ve never met) has a wonderful translation of terms. When she began to write, the usual terms of plot and character and setting didn’t make sense to her, so she translated them into terms that had meaning for her. Instead of the term “plot,” she uses the term “shape.” The actual action of the scene ~ what many people would call plot ~ is only a small part of that shape. She once wrote a story in the shape of a loaded gun. The gun was a teenager, and the parents (mother?) kept putting pressure on the teenager, cocking the hammer farther and farther back, until at the end the teenager goes off. Instead of protagonist’s desire or want, she’ll often think of it as what the protagonist lacks. Instead of setting, she thinks of atmosphere, because it’s not just the landscape but everything else around and also the protagonist’s take on that setting. Instead of protagonist vs. antagonist, she thinks of opposing forces. These forces can be two people, but they also can be within a single person.

Antonya told a funny story about being in her first workshop and being told that she wrote beautifully but that her stories never went anywhere, that they were vignettes. She said that she realized that she led a plotless existence. (We all do because our lives are, in reality, not based on cause and effect and they don’t have a pretty shape. They are without form, and it’s only with story that we shape them.) She began to think about how to give her stories a sensation of movement without it simply being the actions of the characters. Tips she mentioned: make your time frame as short as possible, impose a ticking clock, use external markers of time, and shape is found not in the first draft but in revision. Then she said that she is trying “to defeat the infection of predictability” and create “elegant artful surprise.” Wow. Exactly! So well said.

What I’m Reading Today: Gosh. Life is so full right now I’m having reading withdrawals.

PS I’m on the road tomorrow through the weekend, so I will not be able to post. I will continue with a recap of AWP on Monday. Have a great weekend!

April 14, 2010

AWP, Part 3, Going Long: The Long Short Story

Now I thought I’d talk about the panels I attended. I wasn’t able to attend nearly as many as I wanted to. I missed all of the panels on writing the West, for instance, which I would’ve loved to have seen.

The first panel I attended was Going Long: The Long Short Story, with Jill Meyers, Josh Weil, Karen Brown, and one other women ~ someone couldn’t make it and was replaced by a very knowledgeable veteran writer with dark hair. I came in late so ~ I’m sorry ~ I didn’t catch her name, and I really wanted to. If you know, please email or comment! I want to get her craft book on time in fiction.

[My friend Rashena tells me she's Joan Silber, and her book is The Art of Time in Fiction, among others.]

Jill was the moderator and is the editor of American Short Fiction. She also puts on a great online workshop. Josh is the author of The New Valley, which won the 2010 Sue Kaufman Prize for the American Academy of Arts. The New Valley is three linked novellas set in hardscrabble West Virginia. Karen is the author of Pins and Needles, a short story collection.

I believe that the panel defined the long short story as about 10,000 to 25,000 words ~ longer than a short story (about 5,000 words) but shorter than a novella (say 30,000 to 50,000 words). The panelists said that people sometimes just have a form that they naturally write in, and this form was theirs.

The panelists talked about how a writer approaches the long short story. Most of them said that it was their natural form, that they felt that the regular short story was too short and this form gave them room to get to know the characters and to let the plot develop. Josh said, “I don’t write from something, I write toward something.” By that he meant that a lot of people start with a scene or character in mind and then write forward. He doesn’t. Instead, he knows where he wants to get and writes toward that.

All the panelists said that they love this form because it allows them to get to know the characters and spend time with them. The dark-haired woman said that the longer short story “has its own economies.” I love that. It has its own pace and progression. It can encompass long stretches of time. She had always been taught that a story was just one scene, and the long short story form allowed her to stretch out without the pressure and expectation of the novel. She mentioned Alice Munro as a master of handling time, of jumping back and forth and making it seem effortless. She added that the masters of the story have the ability to write summary as if it were scene.

They talked about letting yourself go vs. indulging yourself. Karen said that what she liked about the longer short story is that you can let yourself go and meander and play. It gives you more room. Josh talked about flabby writing and that you never want your prose to be self-indulgent. The panelists talked about how they don’t go through “drafts” but instead edit as they write. In other words, they don’t write a draft, then come back and edit, and then maybe write, and then come back and edit. They’re doing both in one sitting, though everyone has his or her own process. The dark-haired woman said that you don’t want to be making up things just to take up space ~ what she called “sterile invention,” an apt phrase, I think.

Related to that, someone talked about, in workshops, how people say that a story is economical and how that is a compliment. The panelists answered that there should be a balance. Just as you shouldn’t be self-indulgent, you shouldn’t pare away the richness of story and overwork it. Josh said that he always writes long on the first draft but that that draft, he feels, is sort of sacred. It has an energy that he won’t get through revision. He wouldn’t want to cut into it so deeply that he removes a vital part of it. The dark-haired woman said that she finds workshops, because of this, a little problematic. She said that “plot is the vehicle of meaning, and you should include what you need to carry an effect.”

Someone asked whether the long short story should strive for what Poe called “the single effect,” that everything in the story should be working toward one effect. In response, the dark-haired woman talked about Alice Munro’s story “The Albanian Virgin,” which intertwines the stories of two women, a modern woman and a woman who chooses to live as a man and a sheepherder, which a real historical phenomenon in Albania. (I haven’t actually read this story.) She talked about how Munro often sets two stories against each other and how they light one another up. At the beginning, you may not even know how they are related. The panelists agreed that layering of two stories is often effective, though one story often dominates. The panelists talked about the long short story letting them focus on one aspect of character more fully than in the short story but more tightly than the novella.

The panelists talked about letting a story be what it is, not imposing a form upon it. Josh said that there’s no doubt that it’s hard to get the form published, but definitely worth it. The more you can shake up readers expectations, the better. In the regular short form, people get to expect a certain emotional tenor by a certain point in the story, a certain type of development and pace, and the more you can shake this up, the better. There shouldn’t be just one form and pace for stories.

When asked about models for the long short story, the panelists mentioned Alice Munro, Grace Paley, William Trevor, Flannery O’Connor, Paul Yoon, Bret Anthony Johnston, Annie Proulx, and playwrights like Sam Shepard and Harold Pinter.

When asked about markets for the longer short story, the panelists mentioned American Short Fiction, New England Review, Georgia Review, Ploughshares, Electric Literature, One Story, Southern Review, Tin House, Virginia Quarterly Review, Crazyhorse, Narrative, Northwest Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the Atlantic Monthly e-reader.

Their overarching advice was to just let yourself write. The story will find its form, and you have to generate the material first before you know what will fit and what is extra.

What I’m Reading Today: We have guests, including a darling week-old boy named Henry, so I haven’t been reading much.

April 13, 2010

AWP, Part 2, Highlights

Following up on yesterday’s entry on the social mecca of AWP, I thought I’d talk about the things that really stuck with me. (Though you might check out great recaps here, here, and here.)

Facebook. Facebook (and other online social media) seemed to be the buzzword of the conference. I felt like I had a letter of introduction to a lot of people, that I’d bypassed that awkward first connection moment, by having friended people on Facebook beforehand. I knew a little about them and could recognize their faces and sometimes even recall what they wrote (hehe). Everyone I talked to had Facebook connection stories.

Connections. Along the Facebook lines, many of the people I ran into I knew from workshops, virtual or otherwise. Often, I’d know people from a number of different venues ~ I’d been with them in an online writers workshop and then friended them on Facebook and then seen them at other conferences and I’d read their published work and maybe even been runnerup on a contest they won. Heck, we already had history.

A Small World. Which brings me to my final point about this, which is that writing like anything else is a small world, and the further up you go, the smaller it gets. I suppose some people think this is a bad thing, but I think it’s excellent.

Impromptu Dinners. I loved the fluidity of it all. I’d run into a great friend and we’d say, “Let’s go grab some lunch,” and we’d find a great breakfast place or a great Italian place for lunch and we’d just hang out and talk and eat and have a blast. One night, after the Tin House reception, one of my friends had just flown in and was hungry and some of my other friends said, hey, we’re hungry too, and then some of them had friends, and then we ran into another friend in the lobby. Seven of us ended up going to Maggianos and having absolutely the best time. You know how you can plan and plan an event and it turns out so-so, but sometimes things just happen and you just have the best time. Serendipity.

Michael Chabon’s Keynote. What can I say other than Wow! Being the geek that I am, I wish I’d had my notebook with me to take notes. It was wonderful. He said that his favorite part of doing readings was the Q&A and that night’s venue did not allow for it, so he asked the questions himself and then answered them. They were all the usual questions: why do you write, where do you get your ideas, do you recommend an MFA, and all that. But, oh, his fabulous funny rambling answers. He even read from his application to grad school at 22 and then his application to something else when he was fourteen. I think his talk was long ~ an hour and a half or maybe two hours ~ but it didn’t feel that way. I’ve written the directors to ask (see, beg) them to post a podcast of it online because I was so mesmerized I don’t actually remember much of what he said.

The Sun reading. At 1:30 on Saturday, the Sun had their reading, which included Sy Safransky, Steve Almond, Krista Bremer, Alison Luterman, Ellen Bass, and Frances Lefkowitz. They were all so out-of-the-park good! Alison read her poetry that was at the same time clear and fresh and down to earth but also wonderful and moving. Frances read from a fabulous essay about language ~ it sounds boring when I talk about it, but it was so far from boring. Krista read from a touching personal essay about her husband’s celebration of Ramadan. Sy read from what he called notes. They were cogitations on his life, like very short wonderful poems. (Sy, please please publish them so we can read them in full!) Finally, Steve Almond (though he read first). I make no secret of the fact that I am a Steve groupie. He rocks. His readings are invariably funny and moving and wonderful, and I’ve worked with him in a number of settings. But his reading for the Sun was the most moving one I’ve been to, and it was because he was so moved. (He has a few self-published books of fiction and craft essays. Corner him to buy them all if you get a chance.)

The Bookfair. As I said in my previous post, the bookfair in the ballroom had such energy, such motion, such emotion, such opportunity. It was all there and so wonderful. I think you have bring a certain optimism to these things, an openness, a friendliness, a willingness to forgive social awkwardness. Someone isn’t always staring at your nametag because you’re a nobody and they’re trying to figure out if you’re important enough to get to know. Don’t take it personally. Often, it’s that they’re trying to fix your name in their brain or they are wondering where they’ve seen you or your name before or they’re just dazed with ballroom overstimulation. Let your kid out to play, and bring your best social graces.

What I’m Reading Today: The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction: 50 North American Stories Since 1970. I am so stoked! (Thanks, Rashena, for the tip.) This promises to be as fabulous as the Anchor anthology (though I immediately found two typos in the table of contents, which took me aback).

April 12, 2010

AWP, Part 1

The first thing I wanted to do this week in trying to recount AWP is to express why it (and conferences in general) is so awesome.

So, Wednesday morning, the first day of the conference, I awoke in my hotel room and didn’t want to get out of bed. The room was cool with the fan going and the heavy comforter was cozy, but the morning sun forced its way through the curtains reminding me I had somewhere to be, that I had paid good money to be there and had abandoned my four-year-old twins with their dad and grandma. “Mommy, why are you going away?” I was wasting this time that I had wrested from the world. All I wanted to do was to turn on the boob tube and order room service.

One reason I didn’t feel up to it was that I received a big rejection a week or two ago. For the most part, I’m pretty even keel about rejections in general. I think of it as part of the process. However, this rejection was from a (wonderful) agent who wanted to take my novel but couldn’t. I understood why. Still, I really had felt like it might happen, so I was pretty crushed.

And that was why I really didn’t feel like dealing with anything writing-related.

I’ll just check my email, I told myself. I got myself out of bed and started my laptop. I had a lot of emails from work to respond to. Once that was done, well, I was already out of bed so, what the heck, maybe I’ll get going. I shower and go downstairs and order an Earl Grey latte at the bar. The man (whom I won’t name) sitting at the bar is a poet from the Southwest who is drinking doubles glasses of Jim Beam, one after another. I introduce myself as I wait for my latte, and we have a wonderful conversation about poetry and teaching. The startlingly beautiful blonde, blue-eyed woman who’s serving us ~ Lisa, from Russia, who is a translator ~ joins in the conversation.

I walk down the block and step into the Colorado Convention Center and into the heavenly smell of roasting candied nuts. There are people everywhere ~ gathered outside on the grass and the concrete barriers, entering and emitting from the open doors that pass from hand to hand, streaming up the escalators, down the escalators, gathered in mobile knots, leaning against the wall texting, wandering aimlessly while looking at the conference program. As I walk up the stairs to the ballroom to get my registration packet, I immediately see Dan and Jake, two writers I’d never met in person but whom I’ve friended on Facebook, on the down escalator next to me. I say, “Dan! Oh, and Jake!” And we talk in the moment they pass by. “This is crazy,” Dan says. “I’ve already met a bunch of people I know on Facebook.” (More on Facebook in a subsequent post.)

I go into the ballroom and hear the buzz of people talking, laughing, coughing, shuffling books, walking, moving. The energy and excitement. I think, These are my people. I joke with the people at the registration booth and chat with the conference people who stand in their blue suitcoats and ties with pleasant expressions on their faces.

The first panel I go to is on the long short story. I am late and there is standing room only, so I sneak over to a side wall. On the panel are two people I know from online ~ Jill is the moderator, and she led a fabulous online workshop I took, and Josh is a panelist and writes these amazing rural pieces. As I scan the seated crowd, I see a lot of people I’ve met before ~ Scott (a short story writer I know from the Tin House conference and from being in the same online workshop), Rashena (a short story writer I know from The Writer’s Institute conference in Miami and who is my great friend who I’d picked up from the airport the day before), and Alyson (who is the fabulous author of Ghosts of Wyoming and my mentor and friend). Though I’d never met her in person, from the back I recognize Lucy (whose fabulous work won a contest I was runnerup in and who is my Facebook friend and whose book The Big Bang Symphony is just out).

After the panel on the short story, Rashena and I go to the panel on men writing women and women writing men. I introduce myself to the woman sitting on my other side ~ Katie, who has beautiful strawberry blonde hair in French braids on either side of her head and startling eyes matching the brunette of her highlights. She’s working on her MFA. I exchange contact information with her, as I do with everyone I meet. Later on during the conference, I will meet Jonathan, who was the moderator of this panel, and have a wonderful conversation about writing and about Wyoming. After the panel I run into people in the halls that I know, among them Chivonne, a writer from my hometown of Laramie whose story will probably appear with mine in the next issue of Talking River. Later, I run into Pierre from New York, whose short stories just blow me away. I met him at Tin House.

The next panel is called Smart Girls, and it’s about women writers who are ambitious. Last year’s panel at Chicago was legendary (so I heard) and this year’s panel does not disappoint. I introduce myself to the person sitting next to me but do not have time to exchange info. I forget her name, but she is an undergraduate BFA student in Denver.

At 4:30 in the ballroom, I go to the One Story table to celebrate with Cheston, whose story “A Minor Momentousness in the History of Love” is out in this next issue. I know Cheston because he’s the coordinator for the Tin House conference, not to mention just a great person. I also introduce myself to Hannah and Maribeth of One Story, whom I've exchanged emails with, and say hi to Elliott, who is also with One Story and whom I met at my first Tin House. Then I wander through the east/west rows of tables of literary magazines and publishing houses and MFA programs. I introduce myself to some ~ ones I know and the one ones sitting there by themselves who glance at me with friendly looks in their eyes. At one point, I introduce myself to Diane and Angela at the Black Lawrence Press table, and without me saying anything they remember that I was runner up in their Hudson Prize in 2007. They even remember the year! My jaw hits the floor. As I’m wandering, I recognize faces in the crowd ~ people I know on Facebook or have been in online writers workshops with or whom I know from conferences. I always say hi and chat. Or if someone’s standing next to me at a table, I introduce myself and chat for a bit. I only make it a quarter of the way through the ballroom ~ eating cookies and drinking milk with Sonya and Jon at the Grub Street table when the 5:30 announcement comes over the intercom: “You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.”

Then I walk down 15th Street to the Rack and Rib for the Unbridled Books reception. On my way, I introduce myself to Julie and Eowyn, mother and daughter writers from Barrow, Alaska. We talk about kids and writing. They’re going to the Rack and Rib too. There, I meet Jenny, who’s book reviews in NewWest I much admire, whom I’m friends with on Facebook, and whose book The Ringer was a semi-finalist for the James Jones award and will be out in May 2011. Jenny introduced me to her friends Gesse and Angela and then subsequently I meet their friend Paula, all of whom are in a writers group together.

Finally, I go to the keynote by Michael Chabon. It’s in the Hyatt Ballroom, which is packed. I introduce myself to Anna, who’s sitting next to me and is originally from Denver but now is getting her BFA in the Upper Midwest. She’s interested in the conjunction of writing and spirituality. After Michael’s fabulous talk, I go up and introduce myself to Dinty, whom I’m friends with on Facebook and has these fabulous threads with all these people commenting. In the lobby, I run into a contingent of Wyoming people ~ Brad, Joe, and Evie. Brad writes fabulous short stories, I can’t wait to read Evie’s memoir but she’d just defended it as her thesis the week before, and I haven’t read anything of Joe’s but have seen him around for a lot of years. Finally, I ran into Pierre again, he introduced me to Linda and another woman (sorry! I can’t remember your name at the moment) from Taos, and then Pierre and I made arrangements to hang out the next day. Then back to my hotel room.

I think that’s enough. You don’t need the next two days. You get the idea. I probably went on too long, in fact, but I hope you get the idea of the social mecca of a conference. As a writer in Wyoming, there are few around me that are as serious and passionate about writing as I am. While they sympathize, they don’t understand. Here, they understand without me saying a word.

I think some people look at the vast expanse of the ballroom and are depressed. They think, all these people are my competition. Everyone here wants to get published too. I don’t see it that way at all. I think, really, the only person we have to best is ourselves ~ improving our craft, getting better. In that ballroom, I see everyone as a potential friend.

I think some people view the room with a cynical eye. We’re all a bunch of midlisters or future midlisters. I don’t see it that way at all. What I see is a whole bunch of people who had to courage to face the opposition within and without, to face incredible odds to actually CREATE. It’s easy to destroy; it takes so much heart and faith and courage to create.

I don't know if I've done the subject justice.

What I’m Reading Today: Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. I’ve only read the first seven pages, but oh the verbs!

April 10, 2010

AWP 2010 Is Over

On one hand, I don't want it to end! On the other, I don't think I have the stamina for another day of it! To all you fabulous AWP people out there, I can't thank you enough! I'll try to unpack everything in entries next week.

April 8, 2010


It's midnight, and I'm exhausted. What a fabulous day! I'm not going to have the energy to post while AWP is going on, but I'll definitely talk about it next week. Let me just say: If you get a chance to go to AWP ~ or any writers conference, for that matter ~ GO! It's worth it in the creative energy alone. I started the day wanting to curl up in my hotel room, and now I want to take on the world! Though I may wait until tomorrow...

April 6, 2010

Jessamyn West

Just a quickie today, as I'm scrambling to get ready for AWP. (Yay!)

"Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer. He must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking."

Jessamyn West

April 5, 2010

AWP Begins Wednesday

I’m stoked! I’m going to the AWP conference later this week! For those of you who don’t know, AWP stands for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and it’s one of the biggest writing conferences in the nation.

It’s a more traditional conference with lots of panel discussions and opportunities to network. It’s not like the writers conferences that are put on by Tin House and Bread Loaf and others, in which there are weeklong workshops with writers, as well as panel discussions.

Nope. AWP is for schmoozing, and my used car salesman genes are kicking in! Seriously, what is so great about these conferences is just that you get to meet so many fabulous people. The highest per capita concentration of geeky writer types on the globe.

I am so looking forward to reconnecting with a bunch of friends I know from other conferences. I’m also really looking forward to meeting a bunch of great people in person whom I’ve gotten to know via Facebook and online writers’ groups and online workshops.

So, if you see me in the crowd, please please come up and say hi!

What I’m Reading Today: I finished Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn. What a lovely lovely book. I so admire the fact that it’s a quiet and moving read and that he let it be what it was, which is moving and gentle. It felt real, of its period, and surprising. He never went THERE, where you expected it to go just for thrills. No, instead he went for the deeper thing, the real thing, the moving thing. He didn’t take the easy way out. And I love how he ended it. Up until the very end, I wasn’t sure which way it would go. Bravo, Colm.

April 2, 2010

A Friday Treat

First, let me mention that my friend Anthony Mohr has a fabulous personal essay “My Father Died 50 Times” in the current issue of Zyzzyva. It’s about his father, who played in the villain in many movies. What a great essay. Thanks so much, Tony!

And, lastly, a treat for my lovely readers. In honor of Easter and the birthdays of Hans Christian Anderson and my twins, here’s the timeless story The Ugly Duckling (translated by Jean Hersholt).

It was so beautiful out on the country, it was summer ~ the wheat fields were golden, the oats were green, and down among the green meadows the hay was stacked. There the stork minced about on his red legs, clacking away in Egyptian, which was the language his mother had taught him. Round about the field and meadow lands rose vast forests, in which deep lakes lay hidden. Yes, it was indeed lovely out there in the country.

In the midst of the sunshine there stood an old manor house that had a deep moat around it. From the walls of the manor right down to the water's edge great burdock leaves grew, and there were some so tall that little children could stand upright beneath the biggest of them. In this wilderness of leaves, which was as dense as the forests itself, a duck sat on her nest, hatching her ducklings. She was becoming somewhat weary, because sitting is such a dull business and scarcely anyone came to see her. The other ducks would much rather swim in the moat than waddle out and squat under the burdock leaf to gossip with her.

But at last the eggshells began to crack, one after another. "Peep, peep!" said the little things, as they came to life and poked out their heads.

"Quack, quack!" said the duck, and quick as quick can be they all waddled out to have a look at the green world under the leaves. Their mother let them look as much as they pleased, because green is good for the eyes.

"How wide the world is," said all the young ducks, for they certainly had much more room now than they had when they were in their eggshells.

"Do you think this is the whole world?" their mother asked. "Why it extends on and on, clear across to the other side of the garden and right on into the parson's field, though that is further than I have ever been. I do hope you are all hatched," she said as she got up. "No, not quite all. The biggest egg still lies here. How much longer is this going to take? I am really rather tired of it all," she said, but she settled back on her nest.

"Well, how goes it?" asked an old duck who came to pay her a call.

"It takes a long time with that one egg," said the duck on the nest. "It won't crack, but look at the others. They are the cutest little ducklings I've ever seen. They look exactly like their father, the wretch! He hasn't come to see me at all."

"Let's have a look at the egg that won't crack," the old duck said. "It's a turkey egg, and you can take my word for it. I was fooled like that once myself. What trouble and care I had with those turkey children, for I may as well tell you, they are afraid of the water. I simply could not get them into it. I quacked and snapped at them, but it wasn't a bit of use. Let me see the egg. Certainly, it's a turkey egg. Let it lie, and go teach your other children to swim."

"Oh, I'll sit a little longer. I've been at it so long already that I may as well sit here half the summer."

"Suit yourself," said the old duck, and away she waddled.

At last the big egg did crack. "Peep," said the young one, and out he tumbled, but he was so big and ugly.

The duck took a look at him. "That's a frightfully big duckling," she said. "He doesn't look the least like the others. Can he really be a turkey baby? Well, well! I'll soon find out. Into the water he shall go, even if I have to shove him in myself."

Next day the weather was perfectly splendid, and the sun shone down on all the green burdock leaves. The mother duck led her whole family down to the moat. Splash! she took to the water. "Quack, quack," said she, and one duckling after another plunged in. The water went over their heads, but they came up in a flash, and floated to perfection. Their legs worked automatically, and they were all there in the water. Even the big, ugly gray one was swimming along.

"Why, that's no turkey," she said. "See how nicely he uses his legs, and how straight he holds himself. He's my very own son after all, and quite good-looking if you look at him properly. Quack, quack come with me. I'll lead you out into the world and introduce you to the duck yard. But keep close to me so that you won't get stepped on, and watch out for the cat!"

Thus they sallied into the duck yard, where all was in an uproar because two families were fighting over the head of an eel. But the cat got it, after all.

"You see, that's the way of the world." The mother duck licked her bill because she wanted the eel's head for herself. "Stir your legs. Bustle about, and mind that you bend your necks to that old duck over there. She's the noblest of us all, and has Spanish blood in her. That's why she's so fat. See that red rag around her leg? That's a wonderful thing, and the highest distinction a duck can get. It shows that they don't want to lose her, and that she's to have special attention from man and beast. Shake yourselves! Don't turn your toes in. A well-bred duckling turns his toes way out, just as his father and mother do-this way. So then! Now duck your necks and say quack!"

They did as she told them, but the other ducks around them looked on and said right out loud, "See here! Must we have this brood too, just as if there weren't enough of us already? And-fie! what an ugly-looking fellow that duckling is! We won't stand for him." One duck charged up and bit his neck.

"Let him alone," his mother said. "He isn't doing any harm."

"Possibly not," said the duck who bit him, "but he's too big and strange, and therefore he needs a good whacking."

"What nice-looking children you have, Mother," said the old duck with the rag around her leg. "They are all pretty except that one. He didn't come out so well. It's a pity you can't hatch him again."

"That can't be managed, your ladyship," said the mother. "He isn't so handsome, but he's as good as can be, and he swims just as well as the rest, or, I should say, even a little better than they do. I hope his looks will improve with age, and after a while he won't seem so big. He took too long in the egg, and that's why his figure isn't all that it should be." She pinched his neck and preened his feathers. "Moreover, he's a drake, so it won't matter so much. I think he will be quite strong, and I'm sure he will amount to something."

"The other ducklings are pretty enough," said the old duck. "Now make yourselves right at home, and if you find an eel's head you may bring it to me."

So they felt quite at home. But the poor duckling who had been the last one out of his egg, and who looked so ugly, was pecked and pushed about and made fun of by the ducks, and the chickens as well. "He's too big," said they all. The turkey gobbler, who thought himself an emperor because he was born wearing spurs, puffed up like a ship under full sail and bore down upon him, gobbling and gobbling until he was red in the face. The poor duckling did not know where he dared stand or where he dared walk. He was so sad because he was so desperately ugly, and because he was the laughing stock of the whole barnyard.

So it went on the first day, and after that things went from bad to worse. The poor duckling was chased and buffeted about by everyone. Even his own brothers and sisters abused him. "Oh," they would always say, "how we wish the cat would catch you, you ugly thing." And his mother said, "How I do wish you were miles away." The ducks nipped him, and the hens pecked him, and the girl who fed them kicked him with her foot.

So he ran away; and he flew over the fence. The little birds in the bushes darted up in a fright. "That's because I'm so ugly," he thought, and closed his eyes, but he ran on just the same until he reached the great marsh where the wild ducks lived. There he lay all night long, weary and disheartened.

When morning came, the wild ducks flew up to have a look at their new companion. "What sort of creature are you?" they asked, as the duckling turned in all directions, bowing his best to them all. "You are terribly ugly," they told him, "but that's nothing to us so long as you don't marry into our family."

Poor duckling! Marriage certainly had never entered his mind. All he wanted was for them to let him lie among the reeds and drink a little water from the marsh.

There he stayed for two whole days. Then he met two wild geese, or rather wild ganders-for they were males. They had not been out of the shell very long, and that's what made them so sure of themselves.

"Say there, comrade," they said, "you're so ugly that we have taken a fancy to you. Come with us and be a bird of passage. In another marsh near-by, there are some fetching wild geese, all nice young ladies who know how to quack. You are so ugly that you'll completely turn their heads."

Bing! Bang! Shots rang in the air, and these two ganders fell dead among the reeds. The water was red with their blood. Bing! Bang! the shots rang, and as whole flocks of wild geese flew up from the reeds another volley crashed. A great hunt was in progress. The hunters lay under cover all around the marsh, and some even perched on branches of trees that overhung the reeds. Blue smoke rose like clouds from the shade of the trees, and drifted far out over the water.

The bird dogs came splash, splash! through the swamp, bending down the reeds and the rushes on every side. This gave the poor duckling such a fright that he twisted his head about to hide it under his wing. But at that very moment a fearfully big dog appeared right beside him. His tongue lolled out of his mouth and his wicked eyes glared horribly. He opened his wide jaws, flashed his sharp teeth, and ~ splash, splash ~ on he went without touching the duckling.

"Thank heavens," he sighed, "I'm so ugly that the dog won't even bother to bite me."

He lay perfectly still, while the bullets splattered through the reeds as shot after shot was fired. It was late in the day before things became quiet again, and even then the poor duckling didn't dare move. He waited several hours before he ventured to look about him, and then he scurried away from that marsh as fast as he could go. He ran across field and meadows. The wind was so strong that he had to struggle to keep his feet.

Late in the evening he came to a miserable little hovel, so ramshackle that it did not know which way to tumble, and that was the only reason it still stood. The wind struck the duckling so hard that the poor little fellow had to sit down on his tail to withstand it. The storm blew stronger and stronger, but the duckling noticed that one hinge had come loose and the door hung so crooked that he could squeeze through the crack into the room, and that's just what he did.

Here lived an old woman with her cat and her hen. The cat, whom she called "Sonny," could arch his back, purr, and even make sparks, though for that you had to stroke his fur the wrong way. The hen had short little legs, so she was called "Chickey Shortleg." She laid good eggs, and the old woman loved her as if she had been her own child.

In the morning they were quick to notice the strange duckling. The cat began to purr, and the hen began to cluck.

"What on earth!" The old woman looked around, but she was short-sighted, and she mistook the duckling for a fat duck that had lost its way. "That was a good catch," she said. "Now I shall have duck eggs-unless it's a drake. We must try it out." So the duckling was tried out for three weeks, but not one egg did he lay.

In this house the cat was master and the hen was mistress. They always said, "We and the world," for they thought themselves half of the world, and much the better half at that. The duckling thought that there might be more than one way of thinking, but the hen would not hear of it.

"Can you lay eggs?" she asked


"Then be so good as to hold your tongue."

The cat asked, "Can you arch your back, purr, or make sparks?"


"Then keep your opinion to yourself when sensible people are talking."

The duckling sat in a corner, feeling most despondent. Then he remembered the fresh air and the sunlight. Such a desire to go swimming on the water possessed him that he could not help telling the hen about it.

"What on earth has come over you?" the hen cried. "You haven't a thing to do, and that's why you get such silly notions. Lay us an egg, or learn to purr, and you'll get over it."

"But it's so refreshing to float on the water," said the duckling, "so refreshing to feel it rise over your head as you dive to the bottom."

"Yes, it must be a great pleasure!" said the hen. "I think you must have gone crazy. Ask the cat, who's the wisest fellow I know, whether he likes to swim or dive down in the water. Of myself I say nothing. But ask the old woman, our mistress. There's no one on earth wiser than she is. Do you imagine she wants to go swimming and feel the water rise over her head?"

"You don't understand me," said the duckling.

"Well, if we don't, who would? Surely you don't think you are cleverer than the cat and the old woman-to say nothing of myself. Don't be so conceited, child. Just thank your Maker for all the kindness we have shown you. Didn't you get into this snug room, and fall in with people who can tell you what's what? But you are such a numbskull that it's no pleasure to have you around. Believe me, I tell you this for your own good. I say unpleasant truths, but that's the only way you can know who are your friends. Be sure now that you lay some eggs. See to it that you learn to purr or to make sparks."

"I think I'd better go out into the wide world," said the duckling.

"Suit yourself," said the hen.

So off went the duckling. He swam on the water, and dived down in it, but still he was slighted by every living creature because of his ugliness.

Autumn came on. The leaves in the forest turned yellow and brown. The wind took them and whirled them about. The heavens looked cold as the low clouds hung heavy with snow and hail. Perched on the fence, the raven screamed, "Caw, caw!" and trembled with cold. It made one shiver to think of it. Pity the poor little duckling!

One evening, just as the sun was setting in splendor, a great flock of large, handsome birds appeared out of the reeds. The duckling had never seen birds so beautiful. They were dazzling white, with long graceful necks. They were swans. They uttered a very strange cry as they unfurled their magnificent wings to fly from this cold land, away to warmer countries and to open waters. They went up so high, so very high, that the ugly little duckling felt a strange uneasiness come over him as he watched them. He went around and round in the water, like a wheel. He craned his neck to follow their course, and gave a cry so shrill and strange that he frightened himself. Oh! He could not forget them-those splendid, happy birds. When he could no longer see them he dived to the very bottom. and when he came up again he was quite beside himself. He did not know what birds they were or whither they were bound, yet he loved them more than anything he had ever loved before. It was not that he envied them, for how could he ever dare dream of wanting their marvelous beauty for himself? He would have been grateful if only the ducks would have tolerated him-the poor ugly creature.

The winter grew cold ~ so bitterly cold that the duckling had to swim to and fro in the water to keep it from freezing over. But every night the hole in which he swam kept getting smaller and smaller. Then it froze so hard that the duckling had to paddle continuously to keep the crackling ice from closing in upon him. At last, too tired to move, he was frozen fast in the ice.

Early that morning a farmer came by, and when he saw how things were he went out on the pond, broke away the ice with his wooden shoe, and carried the duckling home to his wife. There the duckling revived, but when the children wished to play with him he thought they meant to hurt him. Terrified, he fluttered into the milk pail, splashing the whole room with milk. The woman shrieked and threw up her hands as he flew into the butter tub, and then in and out of the meal barrel. Imagine what he looked like now! The woman screamed and lashed out at him with the fire tongs. The children tumbled over each other as they tried to catch him, and they laughed and they shouted. Luckily the door was open, and the duckling escaped through it into the bushes, where he lay down, in the newly fallen snow, as if in a daze.

But it would be too sad to tell of all the hardships and wretchedness he had to endure during this cruel winter. When the warm sun shone once more, the duckling was still alive among the reeds of the marsh. The larks began to sing again. It was beautiful springtime.

Then, quite suddenly, he lifted his wings. They swept through the air much more strongly than before, and their powerful strokes carried him far. Before he quite knew what was happening, he found himself in a great garden where apple trees bloomed. The lilacs filled the air with sweet scent and hung in clusters from long, green branches that bent over a winding stream. Oh, but it was lovely here in the freshness of spring!

From the thicket before him came three lovely white swans. They ruffled their feathers and swam lightly in the stream. The duckling recognized these noble creatures, and a strange feeling of sadness came upon him.

"I shall fly near these royal birds, and they will peck me to bits because I, who am so very ugly, dare to go near them. But I don't care. Better be killed by them than to be nipped by the ducks, pecked by the hens, kicked about by the hen-yard girl, or suffer such misery in winter."

So he flew into the water and swam toward the splendid swans. They saw him, and swept down upon him with their rustling feathers raised. "Kill me!" said the poor creature, and he bowed his head down over the water to wait for death. But what did he see there, mirrored in the clear stream? He beheld his own image, and it was no longer the reflection of a clumsy, dirty, gray bird, ugly and offensive. He himself was a swan! Being born in a duck yard does not matter, if only you are hatched from a swan's egg.

He felt quite glad that he had come through so much trouble and misfortune, for now he had a fuller understanding of his own good fortune, and of beauty when he met with it. The great swans swam all around him and stroked him with their bills.

Several little children came into the garden to throw grain and bits of bread upon the water. The smallest child cried, "Here's a new one," and the others rejoiced, "yes, a new one has come." They clapped their hands, danced around, and ran to bring their father and mother.

And they threw bread and cake upon the water, while they all agreed, "The new one is the most handsome of all. He's so young and so good-looking." The old swans bowed in his honor.

Then he felt very bashful, and tucked his head under his wing. He did not know what this was all about. He felt so very happy, but he wasn't at all proud, for a good heart never grows proud. He thought about how he had been persecuted and scorned, and now he heard them all call him the most beautiful of all beautiful birds. The lilacs dipped their clusters into the stream before him, and the sun shone so warm and so heartening. He rustled his feathers and held his slender neck high, as he cried out with full heart: "I never dreamed there could be so much happiness, when I was the ugly duckling."