Monday, August 31, 2009

Conferences, Writing Regimens, Links Galore ...

YOU WANT TO JUMPSTART YOUR WRITING: Try THE SOUTHEAST REVIEW'S 30-Day Writing Regimens - for all ages. Click here formore information.

YOU WANT TO HELP OTHERS: Help get free books and author visits to kids in need. Visit:


The Online Literary Companion to The Southeast Review
Ploughshares -- huge content
Great Poems -

Poets & Writers Magazine

A Great Site for the Writers' Conferences Search

SANIBEL Writers Conference

Writers@Work Conference -- Park City


Writing Exercises for Kids

Go here


A Great Bookstore to Order Signed First Editions


Where Literary Meets Religious Humanism


Check out William Giraldi -- he's great ... can't find the exact essay ... but google his stuff.


Christopher Castellani

Steve Almond

Kim Addonizio

Brad Barkley

John McNally

I love these poems by Charlotte Hilary Matthews

Mark Winegardner

Quinn Dalton

Paul Shepherd

Emily Franklin (YA and adult author)

Stewart O'Nan

Sheila Curran

Marissa Del Los Santos

David Gessner

Madison Smartt Bell

Todd Pierce

Karl Iagnemma

Joshilyn Jackson

The May Queen (on life in your 30s)

It's a Wonderful Lie: Truth about Life in Your Twenties

Because I Love Her


Surreal South


Okay ... there you go ...


Sunday, August 30, 2009

Recent Popular FB Update

Julianna Baggott on FB

I've decided to run fiction workshop like project runway -- call it Project Workshop -- so that, in the end, there's only one student left to grade -- or is there a policy against that?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Asher on Building Novels.

Titles appear in my head. Some titles slip away. Others stick. Sometimes years pass and one title will simply linger. That's the way it was with MY HUSBAND'S SWEETHEARTS. I had the title for ages. And then an agent in LA found out about me and decided that I should be writing screenplays. As a kid, I loved plays. My older sister was an actress, living in NYC by the time I was ten and I was dragged to every imaginable piece du theatre -- from off off off off off (etc) Broadway to the second half of Broadway shows (the old trick of mingling with the smokers and slipping in without tix after intermission to the empty seats...) By 13, I had an unruly crush on Mamet.

So, I thought: Sure. Count me in.

I read some scripts -- including the not yet produced THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE -- and sat down to write MY HUSBAND'S SWEETHEARTS.

The screenplay became my spec script. I didn't live in LA. But it got me into lots of meetings and, yes, lunches.

The script itself was never optioned, but my agent -- while talking about another project -- ended up pitching it and called to tell me so. Time had passed. I asked him what he'd pitched -- he couldn't have remembered it exactly. He told me and he'd made some alterations -- blurring things here and there. I liked the new blur. And realized that I didn't just have a screenplay on my hands. I had an extremely thorough outline for a novel.

I wrote the novel.

Now I call screenplays "plot poems" ... because like a poem they rely on the pressure of the white on the page. It bears its weight on the collection of words -- on each scene -- and like a small house under a heavy snow, the words have to hold up all of that weighted white. I love how much pressure it exerts on the characters and I think that this pressure worked over well into the creation of the novel.

THE PRETEND WIFE was a very organic process. It was one of those novels that seem to rise up naturally from the characters themselves. I think that there's something in me that's tied to the idea of our early loves, lost love, that life is a series of steps and missteps. I fell for the characters in the novel just as Gwen did, and this helped to create an honest depth.

I'm now at work -- hush, hush -- on a novel that's partially set in Provence. So ... I'm eating bonbons.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Building Novels.

a guest blog by Julianna Baggott (with some N.E. Bode insights...)

When I first started writing, I relied solely on words. One word gave way to the next. A novel couldn't accumulate from one word to the next -- like building a house on gravel. Maybe a better novelist could, but I couldn't.

However, if you've got stories or one story that resonates with you and readers, you can take that story and look for pleats -- ways to open it up. There are natural constraints on stories -- size of the cast of characters, point of view (one incident -- four points of view? maybe a novel), time, geography, insight, back story. If you open one of these elements in a story, you might have a novel. I'll come back to this.

It's not really a strange coincidence that the first story of mine to catch the attention of an agent was in first person. I'd figured out something beyond words and began to rely on voice. If a voice is strong enough it can carry a novel -- not alone, but it can, under the best of circumstances, allow a novel to tell itself. It's a way to get the author out of authority. (This, in my case, is always good as I sometimes lord around in a novel in destructive ways.)

(It also helped that I didn't ever sit down to write my first novel. I only sat down to write the first 50 pages of what I hoped to be an undeniable start to a novel that I never intended to finish. See this blog for the back story.)

Girl Talk was originally a short story of eleven pages in which a father disappears for one night. That was my pleat. I unstitched it. Why a night? Why not a summer? I had another short story that seemed like it could be shaped to the mother's backstory ... I wrote toward it. And in the short story "Girl Talk," the final scene was a leap forward in time. This put an ending in sight.

In my second novel, The Miss America Family, I took on two voices, which added texture for me and point of view. A few short stories rounded out this novel as well.

My third novel, The Madam, was in many ways the first novel that I felt I'd written. It was in third person and was my own authorial voice. I wasn't limited by my characters' imaginations, world views, vocabularies ... I felt like I was falling into language again -- lush and perhaps overbearing.

To write The Anybodies, I reverted back to voice. Because I didn't know how to write for a younger audience, I needed the sureness of being N.E. Bode -- dimpled with innocence and his own bizarre insecurities and delightful paranoia.

While writing The Nobodies, I'd started talking to people in LA and realized that The Anybodies was lacking in an overriding philosophy. They also allowed me to be more cinematic.

At this point, I started practicing visualizing scenes. I'd watch them play out in my mind -- and this time she smashes her watch -- I'd reel it in and replay -- this time she slaps him -- I'd reel it in and replay -- this time she slaps him and then catches on fire ... It became a much more efficient and visual form of writing and editing. From there on, my first draft was no longer my first draft. I'd edited it my head ...

Now, with Which Brings Me to You (co-written with Steve Almond), I also had a voice that seemed to be able to sustain a larger form. It was a character I'd written for the anthology LitRiffs. But mainly, I learned the value of audience. It helped that the novel had a structure built into the DNA of its inception. Two people meet at a wedding, instead of having sex in the coat closet, they decide to swap confessions. In the end, they meet again -- and either fall in love or not.

But what really made the novel easy to write (and here I say easy because it was easy in the beginning -- eventually it broke down to me and Almond screaming at each other -- which, we will both tell you -- with great chin-upped-ness -- was good for the novel and an important part of our collaborative creative process -- or something like this... and true, true ... but only in retrospect ... ) was that my character Jane was writing to only one other person, the character of John, and, as a writer, I was only writing to one other person, Almond.

The sentence is of course still the bottleneck through which the whole novel must pass. And so regardless of what I've come to rely on ... it's still all words. And since we choose different words when speaking to different people, my confessions in Which Brings Me to You had the clarity of knowing my audience and the urgency of the telling ...

The Prince of Fenway Park was also born with its DNA fully in tact. My husband Dave and I were talking about what my next project should be. (The older I get the more I rely on conversations of this sort. Collaboration is another way at texture.) I was bemoaning research. Note: I'd been in love with research -- a research junky -- because it also takes me out of authority ... always good for me. See above. And I'd just come off of writing Lizzie Borden in Love, a collection of poems in women's voices, which was -- page for page -- the most hard-earned book I've ever written. It demanded huge amounts of research. (I'll talk about poetry in another blog.) And I was tired.

I wanted to write a novel that we both knew a little something about. Dave told me that he knew the Red Sox -- inside and out. Thanks. What was I going to do? Write a baseball novel? I was a magical realist when it came kid novels ... I wasn't going to write sports.

But then I thought about the Red Sox -- they were cursed. That was magical. And then these sentences came to me.

There was a Curse.
It was reversed.
And this is the boy who did it.
The Prince of Fenway Park.

Of course, I had no idea that the novel was going to be about racism, the Fens, Irish folklore ... But it felt like a classic. It was the greatest singular joy to write.

I still use the texture of stories and parts of failed novels. I'm a firm believer in a healthy junk yard.

I've been idiotic in the building of novels. Once, I had an insight while flipping through a Pottery Barn catalog. There were no rooms. Only moments within rooms -- part of an armchair and half of a rug. I decided -- in a moment of sheer desperation (should I even mention that I was desperate? I mean, if you're flipping through Pottery Barn catalogs while you should be writing, things are desperate...) -- that I only needed to be undeniable in every scene -- moment to moment. And if I had faith in the undeniable moments, they would build into a novel.

I don't know. That might be true. What's not true when it comes to process?

In general, though, I've learned that each novel teaches me how to write it. And, as I've said before, each novel relies on my willingness to fall in love ...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

How to Get Advice from Literary Giants (Dead or Alive)

guest blog by Julianna Baggott, who bears a great resemblance to Bridget Asher...

The other night, Dave was listening to me bemoan the fact that I was in need of some really great advice. I was telling him that I really needed to have a sit-down with Joyce Carol Oates and Richard Russo and Michael Chabon, Atwood, Gaiman ... I needed brilliant counsel.

“In fact, I’ve got some questions for the Fitzgeralds, though not great role models. And I wouldn’t mind talking to C.S. about being an academic who also sometimes writes novels for younger readers. He had to put up with some condescension, right? And I need dead poets, too, the ones who could bear up and the ones who couldn’t…”

“Okay, stop,” Dave said. And here I should offer a warning.

WARNING: My husband Dave is not necessarily touchy-feely. In fact, he’s a WASP, old-school. However, one time, in a backyard at one of his family barbeques, we were all encouraged to hold hands and form a circle. I forget the purpose or what was said. The shame, however, lingers. And I do believe that he does have some small touchy-feely recessive gene which leads to moments like this.

“Pick one writer,” he said. “You don’t have to tell me which one, and assume they know everything – all of your current issues.” This was good thinking. The hefty back-story would be taxing … “And ask this person for advice and imagine the response.”

“Right now?”

“Right now.”

I thought for a moment, picked, asked, waited. The answer was immediate. “Got it.”

“What was the answer?”

“Two things, actually. Very succinctly put. Insulate and go-off.”

“Go-off in what way?”

“Really let fly in every imaginable way.”

“So there,” he said. “You knew it all along.”

But no. I didn’t know it all along. Here's how it went in my head.

I picked Russo. I know, I know. I should have picked someone dead. If I’d known it was going to be so clear, I would have.

I don’t know Russo personally though he’s been good to me. He blurbed my second novel – The Miss America Family -- and wrote a tenure letter for me. We’ve never met. I picked him because he knows the wilds of academe and the writing life and he’s got kids, and because he writes with emotional range. I picked him on a gut level.

I should have picked a woman. Yes, I know this, too. I feel awful enough about picking someone who is too young to be my father but, well, someone who is, I suppose, patriarchal. So back off.

I asked him vaguely, "What should I do?"

He just kind of looked at me and said, matter-of-factly, as if I kind of bored him, in fact: "Insulate and go-off."

The exercise is worthwhile because I really didn’t know the advice he’d give. I really didn’t know it all along. Only my version of Russo – the version of him concocted from his writing and his former generosity – could give me this advice. Flannery would have told me something completely different. (Maybe I’ll ask her later…)

I needed another voice in my head – even if it was one that I had, in part, invented.

Of course, this isn’t insulating. Blogging is the opposite of insulating. But still it’s worth mentioning to all of you … I mean had I known the past few decades that I could get free, succinct, literary advice from the legends of literature, it might have helped a bit here and there.

Hopefully the cash-cab-shout-out-to-the-literary-giants is not a one-shot deal. I can imagine, however, it’s the kind of thing you can wear out pretty quickly … Try it. I’d be curious who you pick and what they advise … Feel free to post.

Friday, August 7, 2009

But Why Persist?

I've posted the research, the various facts, but they don't get at the heart of the matter.

Why do some writers persist and others don't? (Feel free to say check after any/all of the following that apply to you ...)

Some writers start out writing because they want to be understood, they want to fall in love.

Some writers write because they want fame. (Fred Chappell has claimed that he had a boyish desire to be a writer because he thought it would lead to adoration from women and fine cars ... )

Others might write because, on some Freudian level, they're pissed at their daddy, and this is one way to off him -- metaphorically speaking.

Others need money.

Some want respect.

Others want to give witness.

Others want to process the ugly realities of humanity.

Some see it as therapy.

Others were raised to believe in "being called" -- anyone else have Vocation Day in Catholic school? -- and once called by God, you can't give up...

Others -- like Toni Morrison -- went looking for their own story and didn't find it in literature and then had to write it.

Others -- as Saul Bellow would put it -- are readers "moved to emulation."

Some are compelled by some inward word-barrage that needs an outlet.

Others are outraged by the world or alternately stunned by its beauty in the face of its ugliness.

Others need to make sense of family.

Some hear words read aloud and the ticking begins in the head -- an artful mimicry -- and it must be let out.

Some want to resurrect.

Some want to build a family.

Others want to give voice to those who've been dismissed by society.

Others want equality.

Some do it for the puzzle-like challenge.

Some see it as a way of righting wrongs.

Some want their mother's love.

The list is unending. (Feel free in the comment section to add your own reasons ...)

Now, from here, I see it as a house built in a floodplain on stilts. If you write for only one of the reasons above, your house will topple.

If you write because you want a confidant and you want to fall in love, you may well fall in love with a true confidant, and therefore you no longer need to write. If the pretty myth of women and fine cars is broken, you might decide to take your show to Wall Street*. If you go through therapy and realize that you can't really off your father, even metaphorically, and your mother's loved you all along, you might feel healthier and no longer feel compelled to torment yourself with writing literature. If you find the book written by someone else that so beautifully and achingly tells your story and you find deep comfort in that work, you may decide that the work has been done.

But the more reasons you write -- let me restate: The more reasons you need to write, feel compelled to write, the more stilts your house is built on, the sturdier and more enduring it will be.

Now, the strange thing here is that one would think a sturdy house would be a metaphor for health and a deeper kind of stability. Not in this case.

Writing, for me at least, is the disease and the cure. (If I were healthier, would I write less? Perhaps.) It is the thing I am compelled to do for many reasons. It is, as I've said before, how I breathe ... And so the air passing through those lungs is good. (Right? It has, in any case, become necessary.)

But there are times now too when writing is also how I pay for my children to study the art that moves each of them ... I write, as I confessed earlier, for the twisted desires of both respect and readership -- though not usually at the same time. I've resurrected. I've committed literary murder. I've given voice to the dismissed. I've wanted my parents' love. I've given witness. I've needed therapy and found it in words. My own list goes on and on...

I have desired love and understanding, and I've found that no matter how I've found that love in my real life -- profoundly so -- my desire doesn't quit. And I've figured out that the success or failure of any piece of writing depends almost solely on one thing -- my willingness to fall in love at a given moment. Am I feeling generous enough to pour my love and attention on my characters, my sentences, my stanzas? Sometimes the answer is no. And the work fails. I have failed it.

I need the writing for all of my various needs and desires, and the writing needs me -- all of me, to bring all of my various needs and desires to bear. My mother has this phrase she uses about motherhood that's always baffled me -- You are the mother your child needs right now.

But I understand it when it comes to writing -- I am the writer my story needs, born perhaps of my failings but saved by my willingness to fall in love.

Julianna Baggott & Bridget Asher

Dani Shapiro's Beautiful Blog & Women in the Litarary Arts

Dani Shapiro is in between books and maybe this is the most artful time to reflect on process ... She's doing so beautifully. Check out her blog.

Also, women poets and writers, you may want to look at the new group formed on facebook by poets Erin Belieu and Cate Marvin. It's very interesting ... and seems like the beginning of something important. Click here.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Unwanted Criticism -- Unexpected Transcendence

So, I've been asked to write about how to deal with criticism from the people who surround you day in and day out -- those unexpected jabs.

Here's the deal. You're a writer -- maybe your first book is coming out, maybe you're a blogger and you're now making your work public. The fact is that anyone who can read has the right to an opinion of your work -- whether they're the intended audience or not. They are, in fact, readers. Is it sometimes rude of them to offer their opinion? It is. Did they not see BAMBI as children? Did they not listen to Thumper's mother? Hard to say.

One response I use sometimes is, "Well, of course you didn't like it. You're not my target market." This works even when they are your target market because it baffles them. Oh, you? I didn't write the book for you.

Sometimes I joke. "Ha! Well, I wonder what I'd have to say if I read your ... what do you do again? If I read your clients' tax returns ... "

Sometimes I try to get away, quickly ... Um, you hated my cover so much that you ripped it into little pieces and made your own jacket out of clear mailing tape? "Excuse me. I have to use the bathroom! It's urgent."

Mainly, however, I try to remind people of my humanity. I'm a human being who writes novels -- not to make you angry, not to derange you because of a typo ... -- but because this is how I live in the world. It's how I breathe. It's how I give witness. I didn't publish the book because I'm uppity. (This can be a definite vibe you get ...) I wrote the book that I needed to write. I didn't write your book. (Sometimes people are really angry that you didn't capture their lives, their anguish, their struggles and joys.)

I tell them I see writing as a gift that I hand over -- sometimes with great anxiety. I know that it doesn't make sense rationally. It's no longer a gift if someone is paying for it... But it still feels like that's what I've been doing ... making a gift. And so when someone tells me, offhandedly, that it's not their color, the sleeves are too short, that they don't like cardigans anyway ... it feels like a smack -- worse because it's not a cardigan. Writing a novel is grueling.

I know that my work is in the world. I know that the opinions of it may be very public -- and I hope they are -- I welcome reviews even though I brace for them. The fact is, however, that I can brace for them. The little offhanded critique at the potluck? I can't brace for that. And those small jabs can be very difficult to take. Generally I take them in stride, but every once in a while one hits me on the wrong day at the wrong time.

But, too, there are those wholly different moments that you can't brace for either when someone comes up to you in the grocery store, and tells you that your book touched them, when someone starts crying -- surprising themselves and you -- when they mention of a poem about a miscarriage that meant so much to them ...

Those moments when the kid's mother tells you that her son hated reading, but read your book straight through, even while trying on shoes at the mall. And that kid is staring at you, agog.

Those moments when ... and here I should not use the general you ... That moment when my grandmother had finished the book that I wrote about her life, and she started to cry in my mother's kitchen because I captured her own mother, just right, and she was too old to get out of her chair, but she wanted to hold me like a baby and so I got down on my knees and let her hug me to her chest and stroke my hair. I cannot explain how that felt. A return in someway. A homecoming.

Those moments are worth every insult, every unexpected jab.

Those moments are the gifts given back to us.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Chabon Worries about Young Writers ... I Don't -- or not for the same reasons ...

In a recent blog at the KENYON REVIEW, Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky writes a response to Chabon's piece in the New York Review of Books ...

Chabon writes:

"People read stories of adventure—and write them—because they have themselves been adventurers. Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger, and sometimes calamity. For the most part the young adventurer sets forth equipped only with the fragmentary map—marked here there be tygers and mean kid with air rifle—that he or she has been able to construct out of a patchwork of personal misfortune, bedtime reading, and the accumulated local lore of the neighborhood children..."

Beautifully put. But here, he worries ...

"Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted—not taught—to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?"

I always get argumentative when people worry about the future of "literature itself."

And I might be able to set Chabon's mind at ease -- just a little -- as I can offer a report from the trenches of a neurotic childhood.

(And by the way, Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky's post makes a much broader, more socio-economic, historically conscious point ... Worth reading.)

I was raised by a hyper-phobic matriarch, pure obsessive compulsive, built from hearty starch of pure love. Her list of the world’s dangers included everything from drinking orange juice out of coffee mugs to not peeling off the waxy edge of the balogna to lying on damp grass. I was taught to fear all things in nature, as well as germs and the chemicals that kill them. I missed most of 4th and 5th graded because she didn’t trust the bus driver … She would abandon a grocery cart halfway through a shopping trip if the mop guy came near — because the fumes would settle into our pale defenseless Nilla Wafers.

And what do I write? Adventure, fantasy, magical realism — fearful children moving into different worlds through a slippery map or into the underbelly of Fenway Park full of cursed creatures, horned and otherwise. (And in my adult novels, my work has plenty of neuroses but is shot through with large doses of unrestrained love. My mother was generous in that regard as well …)

And Chabon’s point is well taken, as is Lobanov-Rostovsky's. I get both of them.

But speaking as a novelist born from a neurotically overwhelmed home deep in the suburban wilds of middle class America, I can say that Chabon need not worry about the future writers of the world — or not at least necessarily on that score. If anything, denial will breed curiosity, desire … just as boredom leads to creativity. (It’s the lack of unrelenting boredom that scares me, but only because boredom was so plentiful in my childhood that it’s something I can point to … just as adventure is something Chabon points to…)

Writers. What I love is how they can crop up in the most unlikely places under the most unlikely circumstances …

And, correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't there a longstanding literary tradition of writers raised by overbearing, overprotective, neurotic parentals?

Feel free to discuss ...