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 soon – postcards 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!

invite the thing down

Miciah Bay Gault, Managing Editor of Hunger Mountain, was inspired by a note George Saunders wrote on one of her stories to discover what was “unique and iconic” to her. In her engaging Editor’s Note to Hunger Mountain 15, she describes Ray Bradbury’s “writing practice of word association, in which he scribbled long lists of nouns.” It was a practice he did quickly and without thinking. From Bradbury:

I leave you now at the bottom of your own stair, at half past midnight, with a pad, a pen, and a list to be made. Conjure the nouns, alert the secret self, taste the darkness. Your own THING stands waiting ‘way up there in the attic shadows. If you speak softly, and write any old word that wants to jump out of your nerves onto the page…Your Thing at the top of the stairs in your own private night…may well come down.

In Hunger Mountain 15, Miciah brilliantly invited 21 writers (Michael Martone and Paul Lisicky among them) to share their lists, their “raw bits of writing, meant to invite the Thing down.” While you’re waiting for your copy to arrive, I invite you to leave your own list in the comments below. I’ll start us off…

[Hunger Mountain 15: The Thing at the Top of the Stairs. And I haven’t even mentioned the fiction or the photography.]

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.

leaving montpelier

So for the last ten days, I’ve been in Montpelier, Vermont, at my third residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. More about those ten days later.

Yesterday evening around five, Jodi, Jenna, and I left Montpelier in the middle of a snow storm–the Hartford Sheraton our destination.

Not so fast. In fact, not fast at all. Ice covered the interstate, and we crawled along at forty miles an hour. I placed a 911 call to report a single car into an embankment. Then two more accidents. We would have done better on skates.

We gave up around Brattleboro, where we slid off the interstate for a steak dinner and to reassess. Jodi lives in nearby Marlboro, and she suggested we stay the night there at The Whetstone Inn. She called her friend Jean, who welcomed us into her 220-year-old inn around nine last night. We shuffled in the front door through five inches of newly fallen snow.

After standing outside in the snowy silence trying to get a cell phone signal to let my husband know where I was, I settled into my twin bed with the latest issue of Hunger Mountain.

My flight is boarding. More to follow…

How We Spend Our Days: Miciah Bay Gault

Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer Miciah Bay Gault:

4:45 My husband’s alarm goes off. He’s been getting up early to go to the gym. He takes a shower and goes downstairs to make coffee. I lie in the warm bed, not quite able to fall back asleep. I hear the clanking of the egg pan. I hear the coffee grinder. My husband and I are coffee lovers together. This is something we’ve always shared. Sometimes when it’s winter in Vermont (like now) and will continue to be winter in Vermont long after it’s spring everywhere else, I wake up in the morning feeling like there’s nothing to look forward to. And then I remember coffee.

5:45 My alarm goes off, which means I must have fallen back asleep.

6:25 I’m doing yoga after my shower. Having a hard time concentrating though. I try to push my thoughts gently aside and focus only on my breath and movement. But instead of focusing on my breath, I’m thinking about this post, and how I’ll explain how much I love the mornings when I have the house to myself: the chilliness and the beauty of the light on the snow and the sweet familiarity of all the neighborhood rooftops. I catch myself and try to focus on my breath again. Then I start wondering what I’ll say about my yoga practice, and how I’ll find the exact right words to explain my lack of focus.

7:05  I’m a writing nomad. I don’t have an office, and I migrate from place to place around the house, sometimes around the town. Sometimes I write at the dining room table, sometimes I curl up on the couch. I have a desk up on the third floor, but right now we’re renting the third floor out to an old college buddy of my husband’s. Lately I’ve been writing in the guest room, which is where I am today. I sit on the futon with a blanket over me (there’s no heater in this room and it’s COLD. My hands get numb on the keyboard) and prop my laptop on my lap. I sip my coffee. I like the view from this room. Out the back windows the sky is always rose and yellow in the morning, crisscrossed with black branches and telephone lines. I like the shapes of the roofs against the sky; I feel a great tenderness for the roofs of my neighborhood.

I try to start writing by 7. Some mornings I write for an hour, some mornings I stretch it to two. I don’t write Thursday mornings because that’s my “walking school bus” day. My stepdaughter, Lily, is with us half the week, from Wednesday to Saturday. On Thursday I walk her to school. We stop to pick up her buddy Isabelle. Then Isabelle, Lily and I walk down the hill to pick up Eleanor and Louisa.

After writing (or walking school bus) I run off to work. I’m the editor of Hunger Mountain, the arts journal at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a job I love. Today, though, is a day off. So I have more time to write. Precious time. Makes me feel anxious to tell you the truth, hoping I’ll make the best of it. Nothing is worse than finally getting a little bit of extra time and wasting it.

7:10 I just checked Facebook rather than getting started. Yesterday was my birthday and I wanted to see if there were any birthday wishes.

7:12 I’m starting a new story. Right NOW.

8:45 I’ve written five paragraphs and eaten some pancakes. I look over the paragraphs now and feel kind of dull about them. I know they’ll probably change, maybe even be cut entirely before I’m through with this story. But they have to be written before they can be revised, before they can be cut. I’m an incredibly slow story-writer. It can take me years to finish a story. I only have my hour or two a day to write, for one thing, now that I spend so much time editing Hunger Mountain, teaching at the community college, parenting, cleaning house, making dinner, spending time with Jeff. In grad school I would spend five, six hours a day writing. Now, life crowds in. But I’m slow for other reasons too. I’m a thorough reviser. I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. I go through forty or fifty drafts. This new story, the premise of which kind of thrills me, won’t be finished for months, maybe years.

11:17 I decided to send an unpublished story out to a few more places, and I’ve spent the last two and a half hours making very slow progress on this. I submitted it to Ploughshares using their online submission manager. Then I made a list of four more places I want to send it: The Southern Review, Epoch, the New England Review, and the Missouri Review. I’ve gotten little handwritten notes of encouragement from the editors at Epoch and Missouri Review, so that’s why they’re on my list. I feel a kind of loyalty to the New England Review because, like the journal I edit, it’s located at a Vermont college. The Southern Review is on the list just because it’s so lovely.

Why, you might be wondering, did this process take me two and a half hours? Here’s one reason: the story was thirty-one pages, and Ploughshares doesn’t want stories longer than thirty pages, so I had to go through and cut words and sentences here and there until I’d cut out a whole page. Here’s another reason: my stepdaughter can’t find her homework folder for school, so her mom stopped by and we both searched the whole house. No luck. It must be in my office at the college. On Wednesdays and Thursdays Lily walks up after school and sets up camp in my office. She does her homework, has a snack. She raids the library of Children’s Lit books we’ve got up on the fourth floor of College Hall.

12:10 I walk to my office at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and retrieve the homework folder, which is indeed right there on my desk. Then I walk down to the elementary school.

1:30 Sitting in Capitol Grounds at a table by the window, overlooking the river, which is still frozen and snow-covered. I’ve got a Chai Latte. I’ve spent a few minutes looking at people. What do I do now?

This is the question I’m always wrestling with. Whenever I hear the word “wrestle” I see that famous painting of Jacob wrestling with the angel. It’s stuck so deeply in my mind that I can’t help picturing whatever I wrestle with as an angel. Angel of piled-up laundry. Angel of ungraded papers.

2:00 Grading papers.

4:00 On the way home I run into Robert ice skating in front of VCFA with his son Truman. We talk about our novels a little bit. He says he’ll read the story I finished last week. I trust his opinion so this is great news.

4:25 Grocery shopping at the co-op.

5:10 Gotta run. Late for the Black Door, where I’m meeting folks from work.

5:25 Change of plans already. Since Lily’s at her mom’s tonight and I’m out at the Black Door, Jeff decides to go play poker in Craftsbury.

6:45 Leaving Black Door. Mild out, chilly but softly so. My friends Bill and Flo have called to invite me over for dinner.

9:30 I get in bed to read The Professor and Other Writings by Terry Castle. I’m also reading Wicked by Gregory Maguire, who’s going to be here this summer for the Writing for Children residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Also The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, The New Yorker, People Magazine, my friend Ann’s YA manuscript, Taking Charge of your Fertility, and The Pushcart Prizes. I’m always reading a bunch of books at once, and writing a bunch of stories at once.

Usually my nights are all about making dinner, getting Lily into the shower, and then various bedtime activities. At dinner we always do “High Low.” Lily’s first grade teacher taught us this. We read somewhere that the Obamas have a similar dinnertime activity, but they call theirs “Rose and Thorn.”

After Lily’s shower we all climb into the big bed together and I read.  Currently it’s my all time favorite books: the Emily of New Moon series by Lucy Maud Montgomery, the author of Anne of Green Gables, but they’re better than Anne, in my opinion. Emily is a bit more dreamy than Anne. Her friends are cooler. And she’s more serious about her writing plans. She doesn’t suddenly give up all literary ambition in order to have six kids, which is what Anne does, and over which I guess I still feel a certain sting. I was so intensely shaped by these books, which I’ve read every year since I was ten. All my ideas about ambition, and friendship, and family, and independence, and education, and romantic love, and sense of belonging were formed by these books. My ideas about myself as a writer were formed by these books.

Anyway, tonight I climb into bed alone with my books. Luxurious hour or two with the bed to myself. High Low, Miciah? High, extra time for writing today. Low, not quite enough time for writing. It’s like this every day.

AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…

1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?

  • Some of the stories in Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link were just lovely.  I liked “Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose” and “The Specialist’s Hat.”

2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?

  • I feel strange giving advice since I’m just a hopeful, struggling writer like many of the folks reading this. But here’s what I’d like to say as an editor: It’s about the slush pile. So often hopeful writers think that editors at lit journals have an antagonistic relationship with the slush pile, but it isn’t true. We need it; I’m always hoping to find a gorgeous gem of a story. We can’t solicit everything we publish, and we wouldn’t want to. We rely on the slush! Remember that when you send stories out! If yours is rejected, it’s not because of some snobbery or, worse, corruption amongst editors. Maybe your story’s not quite polished enough, maybe it’s got some other flaws, or maybe it just isn’t right for the particular editors who read it. Send it out again! Be patient! Be persistent!

3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?

  • I like to write while walking. Sometimes if I’m particularly stuck, I take a notebook and a pen for a walk. It always feels kind of adolescent somehow. But it works. I get unstuck. I also like to write during concerts and lectures. If the lecture is about science, that works best.

By Miciah Bay Gault:

O Liberated Eyes

City of Lonely Women

Hunger Mountain