then, suddenly

In 1999, my first writing workshop: Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. Yes, in the Napa Valley. St. Helena. Mark Doty was there. David Lehman. Jane Hirshfield. Richard Bausch. (I always get him and his brother confused, never remembering which one it is I met. Which is terrible, given that we actually had a conversation at the picnic about Atlanta.) Elizabeth McCracken. Lynn Emanuel.

To write this post, I pulled out my file on the conference and found notes on a lecture Richard Bausch gave on the “Value of Exposition vs. Show Don’t Tell.” Which is basically what I wrote my critical essay on for VCFA in January. I didn’t know enough in 1999 to take it all in. Which was not the intended point of this post. Still, a good craft essay is worth rereading every six months or so, when we might be ready to absorb the next piece of the puzzle or when we might be struggling with some new aspect of writing.

In any event, I began this post to write about the poet Lynn Emanuel, who visited VCFA during the winter residency. I had a book of her poetry on my shelf that I had been rereading in the fall even before I knew of her visit. She had signed it, but I couldn’t remember where or when. At some point, I thought: Napa. 1999.

And yes, when I introduced myself after Lynn read on January 7, 2011, she confirmed what I just reconfirmed by pulling out my file. We were both there. In St. Helena at the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference in 1999.

Her book, Then, Suddenly, is filled with poems about writing, about inhabiting the other whom we become as we write. Lovely quotes from Italo Calvino, Albert Einstein. And from Edmond Jabes:

The book is the subject of the book.

Two excerpts from Lynn’s poetry:

from The Dig and Hotel Fiesta
I will study her longing for far, for everything
to be more
must travel by eye and she (that more distant
I) will set no limits
from Then, Suddenly
… On my finger I bore the tourniquet
of  his ring, and I was happy inside my lonely 
rayon blazer when a voice said suddenly–
No, I said, standing there clothed in the raiment
of a dead man. No, said the voice of the dead
man limping up and down the stairs of my voice.
No, No, No, said the voice of the dead man limping
down the long dark corridor of my throat.
~cross-posted at Contrary Blog

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


Inch. Do you know this tiny journal? I discovered it at AWP. Small. Gray. Thin. Tiny poems. Tiny fiction. A single issue costs $1. Bull City Press publishes 4 issues a year. Ross White is the Editor, and guess what? Robin Black is the Fiction Editor. I didn’t even know that.

Winter 2011: Issue 15: Fiction this issue by Andrew Scott. Poetry by Jasmine V. Bailey and Mike Puican.

Tiny post. 

take a look

Although I love the way Catching Days looks on the computer, I love love love the way it looks on an iPad. If you have one (or the next time you see somebody using one, borrow it for a second), take a look.

It’s kind of weird that the blog looks different depending on what you’re looking at it. Maybe it’s like the difference between paperback and hardback. What do you think?

reality hungry or good hungry

So, David Shields‘ manifesto Reality Hunger.

Structure: 618 short sections grouped into 26 chapters.

Subject: our hunger for the real as opposed to the invented.

Shields makes some strong points and shares some controversial ideas, most of which, in the real world, would require a cite. But Shields does not believe that reality–words, music–belongs to anyone. Random House forced him to credit the sections–there’s a list in the back of the book. But he begs you to cut that section out. Or at the very least not to read it.

Your uncertainty about whose words you’ve just read is not a bug but a feature.

That’s pretty cool. Of course, then there’s

  • the novel is dead #327

But perhaps he’s just reading the wrong novels. Still, it’s true, as Martha Cooley wrote in “Novel Anxiety,” in The Writer’s Chronicle

In content and form, too many novels published today fail to startle, unnerve, or exhilarate us, or to speak in fresh ways to the actual complexities of our experience.

The sense of novel-fatigue out there seems palpable to me…

Shields is FOR a blurring of the distinction between fiction and nonfiction #3. He thinks memoir is as far from real life as fiction is, and that selection is as important a process as imagination #104.

Reality Hunger is repetitive and would have been more powerful if shorter. The stronger ideas would have shined rather than been buried. Still, I’m glad I read it.

I want to explore my own damn, doomed character. I want to cut to the absolute bone. #517

~cross-posted at Contrary

How We Spend Our Days: Kim Wright

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 Kim Wright:

Saturday morning. Like a lot of writers, I’m pretty ritualistic. I write in the morning, and one of my quirks is that I like to do the first draft stuff in public places. There’s something about the kind of white-noise buzz of other people coming and going that soothes me and helps me get in the right head space to write. My favorite place is Café Carolina, especially on weekends when they have these airy, yeasty Belgian waffles. 

After putting in a couple of hours at the computer my dog Otis and I go for a walk at a park near my house. I guess my mind continues to ramble while we do because a lot of times any snarls I’ve hit earlier in the morning seem to untangle themselves while we follow our familiar path around the lake. Otis is a rescue dog who was given that name when the local humane group literally found him sitting on a dock, a la Otis Redding, who sang that classic song “Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay.” He’s an old soul, nearly Yoda-like in his calm, and I can’t imagine what I ever did without him.

A couple more hours at the desk and then this next part I’m almost ashamed to admit. Every single day of my life – excluding Sundays – I go to my ballroom studio to dance. I took up ballroom dancing two years ago and to call it an obsession is just too anemic of a word. My instructor, Max, is from Siberia and we compete in waltz, tango, foxtrot, and quickstep – you know, all the old dances from the MGM musicals. I’ve always loved those old black and white movies and ballroom is as close as I’m likely to get to recapturing the glamour and romance of that era. Not to mention that it’s pretty hard for a woman of my generation and my temperament to learn how to follow the man’s lead. Note the drop-dead-serious tango face! 

Afternoons is also when I take care of the business side of writing – interviews, publicity, working with editors, etc. I like doing the creative stuff in the morning and the more nitpicky things in the afternoon.

There’s a shelf in my home office where I keep the foreign editions of Love in Mid Air. I worked on my novel for eight years and one of the fantasies I privately nursed during all that time was the idea of foreign editions. My parents had an import business, and I traveled to Europe on buying trips with them when I was a teenager. I used to go into the bookstores and wander around looking at all the titles, wondering who the writers were, imagining what it would be like to have your work read in Rotterdam and Pisa and Istanbul. So now I display my foreign editions and they – horrible pun alert – mean the world to me.

On this particular Saturday after writing, dancing, and walking, I went with some friends to see the premiere of a movie called Redneck Roots. It was funny and light and a guy in my writing group was one of the producers. We watched the film and then there was an after party with barbecue, biscuits, and bluegrass. A rainstorm came up and we all fled inside to finish eating. I think my friends and I look like a slightly tipsy Mount Rushmore.

Everyone kids me because I’m such a nerd. By 8 pm on a Saturday night I’m back home in my jammies writing this with a House rerun in the background and Otis snoozing at my feet. 


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

  • When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson. I love what she does with voice, and the opening twelve pages of this book are just stunning. I was looking for a literary mystery and the owner of a small indie bookstore recommended Atkinson.

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

  • Read everything you write out loud. It’s very hard to catch mistakes in your own writing, whether it’s something minor like a tendency to repeat certain words or major problems like plot holes you could drive a truck through. Reading aloud slows you down and helps you come to the work fresh. It also is a good test of whether or not your writing has a conversational, natural quality. If a sentence is awkward to read out loud, it often means you’ve lost the rhythms of human speech and that sentence would be equally awkward to read silently.

3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?

  • I don’t really know how unusual this is, but I write my books completely out of sequence. In Love in Mid Air, the first scene I wrote ultimately became the next-to-last chapter in the book, and in the mystery I’m working on now I’m starting with the revelation of the murder. It drives the people in my writing group crazy!

By Kim Wright:

Love in Mid Air