the next writer in the series: february 1, 2014

A Design So Vast

In  The Writing Life, Annie Dillard wrote, I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we … Continue reading

the next writer in the series: october 1, 2013

the saddest music ever written

In  The Writing Life, Annie Dillard wrote, I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we … Continue reading

not every sentence can be great but every sentence must be good

brevity

Thrilled to have a craft essay in the new issue of Brevity, which includes fifteen brief wonderful essays by Sven Birkerts, Brian Doyle, Robin Hemley, David Jauss, Thomas Larson, and more. Plus other craft essays by Philip Graham and Mary Clearman … Continue reading

summer reading

Summer Contrary is online with new fiction, essays, and poetry, as well as reviews of these books :

Poetry: Northerners by Seth Abramson

Essays: Otherwise Known as the Human Condition by Geoff Dyer and A Journey with Two Maps by Eaven Boland

Fiction: And Yet They Were Happy by Helen Phillips, You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon, and The Bird Sisters by Rebecca Rasmussen

Here’s the beginning of my review of The Bird Sisters:

When they were teenagers, Milly hoped to marry and have children, while Twiss hoped to stand on the Continental Divide and “to be the world’s most interesting spinster.” Rebecca Rasmussen’s debut novel, The Bird Sisters, opens at least half a century later with Milly and Twiss living together in the house where they grew up. Perhaps, as Twiss concludes, they just didn’t want those other things enough.

To read more…

the writing life

For the last couple of months at Hunger Mountain, Claire Guyton, former Art +Life editor, and I have been working together to expand that section of the journal into The Writing Life.

Here’s what’s up and coming at

THE WRITING LIFE:

1) ANOTHER LOOSE SALLY - Hunger Mountain’s blog about writers and writing anchored by Claire Guyton (check in every Thursday!)

~june 16: The Catch / june 9: Shape is the Thing / june 3: Envisioning Concrete Pianos /may 26: New Writing Rule

2) AUTHOR VISITS  - interviews with the Hunger Mountain contributors

3) CRAFT SHORTS & ESSAYS - large and small doses of craft (online submissions for both forms now open)

~first short: On Endings: 11 Strategies by David Jauss

~May essay: Conjuring the Magic of Story by Stephanie Friedman

4) LISTS: LITERARY & LAUNDRY - coming soonpostcards from the organizational side of the writing brain

5) WRITER, INC., debuting in September, memos from the business of the writer’s life 

6) REVIEWS GONE SIDEWAYS - coming soon – anything but your mother’s reviews.

Check us out here

and

stay tuned!

this won’t take but a minute, honey

If you haven’t visited the Harvard Book Store,

take a minute and pop over there.

Watch the shutters open and the store come to life.

See what books fill their front windows. Click for a close-up; double click to look inside a book. With your mouse, you can zoom in or out. Amble to the side street, just right of the two vintage-looking mail boxes. The site is almost almost as much fun as being there in person.

The Harvard Book Store is independent and has been family-owned since 1932. And green, green, green–offering same-day delivery by bike.

And they have a book-making robot–the Espresso Book Machine–nicknamed Paige. It can print a book in about 4 minutes, and you can watch. It can switch between different covers if you have more than one. It costs an author about $5.00 a book.

Steve Almond‘s book, This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, which is only available from Steve or from the Harvard Book Store, is created by Paige. In May of last year (I’m a touch behind writing this post), I called the bookstore, and for $9.41 + $5.00 postage, I was soon holding a copy. It’s a nice quality paperback, 6 1/2 inches by 4 1/2 inches. Turn it one way; it’s 30 stories. Turn it the other; it’s 30 essays.

I highly recommend the book. Most of the stories and essays are no longer than a page. My favorite story was

“I Want to Buy the Guy a Drink Who” 

In the dead of a scowling New York January spots my great aunt Meta on 64th and Central Park West staring doubtfully at the icy crosswalk…

Overall, I preferred the essays to the stories. In “Bullshit Detector,” he writes, “Writing is decision making.” In “POV:NBD,” he writes:

POV is nothing more than a tool, a way of getting close to the turmoil of your people.

And in “Fuck Style, Tell the Truth,” he writes:

…your artistic unconscious is about ten times more powerful as an imaginative tool than your conscious mind. But it only comes out to play when you forget yourself and focus on your people.

In the July/August 2010 Poets & Writers, Almond calls himself “Self-Publishing Steve” and explains why he chose Paige for this book of his: “smaller, more personal books should move into the world in smaller, more personal ways.”

In the Spring 2011 Third Coast, Steve gives a Craft Talk, where he is again asked about his decision to self-publish this book:

The book isn’t a commodity; it’s an artifact. And when I do a reading, if people want it, then I hand it to them, and they hand me ten bucks. It’s a really nice feeling. I’m not going to get rich off of it. That’s not the point. The point is to get the work out there, the ideas and emotions.

And about publishing literary fiction and non-fiction in general:

…the whole model of publishing is changing. There aren’t enough readers of books–certainly not enough readers of literary fiction and non-fiction–for it to be a going concern at this point. And so it feels to me like getting a corporation involved is incredibly inefficient…this is one way of doing it that makes more sense.

Oh, and the telephone number for the Harvard Book Store is 1.800.542.READ.

Cross-posted at Contrary Blog

critiques: look for doorways

I was just going through a pile of papers that was teetering precariously and found a page I had torn out from “The Care and Feeding of the Work in Progress” by Catherine M. Wallace (Writer’s Chronicle, Mar/Apr 2008).

Writing workshops generally require you to read and critique the work of others. We do this at every residency at Vermont College. My writing group exchanges manuscripts every three months.

In the article, Wallace advocates not attempting to “fix” others’ work:

…the muddled passages are usually growing edges, and my “fixing” them will stop the new growth that might have happened.

She suggests thinking about “troubles” not as problems to be fixed but rather as doorways:

Picture platform 91/2 in the Harry Potter books: it looks like a wall, but try running straight at it and see what happens.

What she suggests:

to circle the “good parts” and put question marks whenever you get lost.

Our readers’ responses are a gift, she says. I agree.

rock & sling, poetry, arroyo, ecotone

One I’d heard of before. Three I hadn’t. Some were free at AWP; some were not. In each one, I found something that made me glad I’d lugged it home–either connecting with the words of writers I didn’t know or finding new poems and stories by writers I did. Two of these journals have stunning covers that will make me incapable of putting them in the recycling bin even after I need the space for new ones. So two I will send to a friend. Two I will take to the local high school library. Here are some highlights from the four literary journals I brought home from Washington a few weeks ago:

Rock & Sling–a journal of witness. Published twice a year by Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. Volume Six. Issue One. Winter 2011.

“Chalkboard” by Jeremy Clive Huggins:

I was in the 10th grade when it first registered: I will be someone else some day…Two decades later, I fail to remember that I will be someone else, not just some day, but next year, next week, next day, next anything.

“Mud Flats” by Ray Amorosi:

Clams hiss through pin holes a few feet down.

Poetry. A publication of the Poetry Foundation. Volume 197. Number 3. December 2010. The Q & A issue. Cover art by Sam Martine. “Faces (detail), 1997.

Charles Baxter on his poem “Some Instances” is asked if poetry is an escape from narration: “My answer is a respectful “No”…Like many fiction writers, I began my writing life as a poet, and what I sometimes miss in my own fiction is the high-velocity association of ideas and events and imagery that poetry makes possible.”

Jane Hirshfield on her poem “Sentencings” is asked about the image of “putting arms into woolen coat sleeves”: “I might, I suppose, have written a different poem, about my late sister’s coats. They are lovely. But I wrote this.”

Arroyo. Department of English, California State University, East Bay. Hayward, California. Volume 2. Spring 2010. Cover art by Jonathan Viner.

Dorothy Allison interviewed by Jacqueline Doyle. 15 pages.

Life goes so fast and we lose so much. We can barely even hang on to memory. But if you’ve got a story, a stunned moment story, that moment lives forever.

Ecotone–reimagining place. Department of Creative Writing and The Publishing Laboratory at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. 10. The sex and death issue.”Ecotone and the University of North Carolina Wilmington are proud to print this entire issue on 100 percent postconsumer fiber paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.”

Benjamin Percy on James Salter’s “Akhnilo”:

Suspense is the engine that drags a story forward…They [my students] misunderstand suspense, believing that it hinges exclusively on plot points, rather than on human urgency.

This story is a case study on the mystery outside the character and the urgency within…the true pull of the story comes from the desire the man feels, the desire we feel alongside him…

I support literary journals. Support art–any way you can.

Crossposted at The Contrary Blog

as i was saying

Friday night I settled into my bed at The Whetstone Inn with the latest issue of Hunger Mountain. I wanted to read Robin MacArthur’s essay, “Abandoned Landscapes.” Robin lives in Marlboro only minutes from where I was at the moment. What fun to read that essay when I was in the grips of her landscape, I thought.

I could hear Robin’s voice as I read. Last summer, she delivered this essay as her graduating lecture at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She wrote:

I was born amidst three hundred acres of land in Southern Vermont that my family has owned for three generations, on a road that carries my name. I grew up throwing hay bales, tapping sugar maples, building forts in the woods… This landscape is how I know the world and myself in it, and, undeniably, part of who I am.

Robin’s essay discusses the fiction of Willa Cather, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway. It’s one of the best essays on landscape I’ve ever read. Order a copy of Hunger Mountain today and let me know what you think. In my next post, yet another reason to order a copy of this issue of Hunger Mountain.

I’ll close with Robin’s words:

Our obsessions are the keys to our art; if we pay enough attention to them, we will find ourselves on the road to originality, resonance, truth.

making a list and checking it twice

A list makes me feel as if I’m in control of things. It’s a little summary of what I have to do. And if I can just get “it” on a list, it’s in line to be done. It will get done.

On Sunday, in The New York Times Book Review, in the essay on the back page,”I’ve Got a Little List,” Arthur Krystal discussed literary lists. He wrote,”Isn’t every list in reality a ceremonial flourish against amnesia and chaos?”

Yes, exactly.

I keep trying different systems. What I really need is one of those hats with a pole that extends out in front of it so that the current list can dangle continuously in front of my eyes…

Lists are the one thing that don’t seem to work for me on the computer. I need them on paper.

I make lists of things as I think of them on whatever is handy (like torn-off corners of envelopes). I make more organized lists on sturdier index cards. Sometimes, I make a series of lists in a small flip notebook. Or, like yesterday, I list on a print-out of my schedule for the day–that way the list is face-up and in my face.

I have Christmas lists: the get-Christmas-started list (which except for setting up the wrapping area is complete), the gift list, the food list…

The “list” has literary beginnings. According to Krystal:

“List,” borrowed from the French word liste, first turns up, in the modern sense, in “Hamlet,” when Horatio reports that Fortinbras has “sharked up a list of landless resolutes”–i.e., indiscriminately put together a makeshift army.

How do you list?

what it’s like living here

I wrote a guest post for Doug Glover’s blog, Numéro Cinq, in the series he’s doing on what it’s like to live in various places. Here’s the first paragraph:

In Columbus, Georgia, the seasons change, but they take their sweet time about it. First summer doesn’t want to let go, and then the leaves cling to the trees. Not until late October do the golds, oranges, and reds sprinkle this over-green world with color.

To read more…

I spent the day with Chekhov

Last Saturday I spent the day with Chekhov. I don’t know how many of you notice what I’m reading on the sidebar, but it seemed to me that I’d been reading this small old-fashioned-looking book–A Doctor’s Visit: Short Stories–for quite a long time. I started it before I left for Colorado on September 5th but read none of it while I was gone because I was busy reading manuscripts.

On the “what i’m reading now” Page (on which, as of today, I will add the day I start the book), I was surprised to read what I’d written about this collection, “I’ve read a little Chekhov here and there, but I want to spend some time with these stories–really get to know them.”  That’s what Saturday felt like, when I decided to “buckle down,” as my mother would say, and finish these stories.

In his forty-four years, Anton Chekhov wrote over 200 stories (as well as plays). This particular volume, with an introduction by Tobias Wolff, was recommended by my adviser David Jauss. You will find “Neighbors,” “A Gentleman Friend,” “The Bishop,” “A Doctor’s Visit,” “Gusev,” The Lady with the Pet Dog,” “Gooseberries,” and “About Love” as well as five different translators, among its nineteen stories.

In “The Legacy of Anton Chekhov: What it Means to say ‘Chekhovian’ & Why his Stories still Serve as a Blueprint for the Stories we Write Now,” (The Writer’s Chronicle, Vol. 42 No. 3, 24-34) Rick Reiken writes:

The simple answer to this question is that Chekhov, a practicing physician and playwright, more or less invented what we in the U.S. have come to understand as the conventions of character-driven literary short fiction.

On Saturday, not only did I finish the collection but I also wrote a rough draft of my essay for my next packet. I knew I wanted to write on some aspect of these stories, but I struggled a bit with which one. In the end I chose to write about the preponderance of words telling rather than showing emotion. I reread. I circled words. I compiled lists.

While counting terms in “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” I had to restart a number of times. One of its passages articulates so beautifully the difference between the various lives we live that I would get lost in it every time and forget to scan for telling emotional terms (none in it, as it turns out):

He had two lives: an open one, seen and known by all who needed to know it, full of conventional truth and conventional falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life that went on in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental combination of circumstances, everything that was essential to him, everything about which he felt sincerely and did not deceive himself, everything that constituted the core of his life was going on concealed from others; while all that was false, the shell of which he hid to cover the truth–his work at the bank, for instance…–all that went on in the open. Judging others by himself, he did not believe what he saw, and always fancied that every man led his real, most interesting life under cover of secrecy as under cover of night.

On Sunday when I was reading Francine Prose’s review of Yiyun Li’s new collection, I ran into Chekhov again:

…Nabakov’s description of Chekhov’s narrative style: “The story is told in the most natural way possible…the way one person relates to another the most important things in his life, slowly and yet without a break, in a slightly subdued voice.” As with reading Chekhov, one is struck by how profoundly important the lives of ordinary people are made to seem, and by what a sizable chunk of existence–an entire life or several lives–has been compressed into a few pages.

Chekhov. Highly recommend.