Thursday, September 29, 2011

1/2 Dozen for Gregory Sherl

A 1/2 Dozen for poet,
fiction writer, and essayist
Gregory Sherl.
A fearless and obsessive
talent whose work
is intimate and sublime
and heartbreakingly
Listen in...

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

This is something I've been thinking about recently. When I was lucky enough to take your workshops as an undergraduate, I hated writing. I hated writing so much I only ever wanted to quit. Hell, I tried. Do you remember what you told me, Baggott? You said (not verbatim, but very, very close -- I promise), You can try to quit writing, but it will always haunt you. It'll haunt you when you wake up in the morning, when you're eating your breakfast, while you're in the shower. It'll haunt you on your drive to work.

I thought you were crazy, but it's true.

And as many cigarettes as I smoked and movies I saw and coffee I drank and miles I walked, I could never get the writing to go away. So I kept writing, and I kept hating writing. That was until I took Bob Hicok's poetry workshop at Virginia Tech. Poetry was, and for the most part still is, a new thought process for me. But something happened in that class. The form and what poetry is, seemed to work for me. Maybe I was never meant to write short stories, or maybe I wasn't meant to write short stories or start a novel yet. But as soon as I started writing poems, things started making more sense. I stopped hating writing and started craving it more and more. I couldn't stop. I can't stop. Why would I want to stop? Don't make me stop.

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?

Always kiss them between their shoulder blades. For the writer, everything will always feel like the end of the world, but it won't be, it won't ever be -- that shit won't even be close to the end of the world -- so kiss them between their shoulder blades and let them ruffle their feathers until they get so tired your lap is the best pillow ever.

Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.

It'll get worse. Much, much worse. And then one day, you will get an email saying that your story/poem/essay/micro whatever has been accepted into a journal. There will be ten minutes of good feelings. Then you will realize that you will not be paid for said story/poem/essay/micro whatever that will be appearing in said journal. Then you will wait six months, maybe a year and a half, and then your story/poem/essay/micro whatever will finally be published and no one will read it, not even the other contributors in the journal.

Rinse. Repeat. Rinse and repeat for the next couple of years.

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

Lately my girlfriend, Kat, and I can't stop watching Felicity. (It's streaming on Netflix!) There's something about 90's melodrama and frumpy sweaters and late 20's to early 30's "actors" pretending to be freshmen in college.

I really hope Felicity never gets canceled.

Also, this:

What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?

My reading life is consistent with how often I have to use the restroom.

I get my best reading done while in the bathroom, doing bathroom things. I would consider my reading life boisterous, especially if we can (and should) call Esquire and Vanity Fair reading. But there are novels too; for a while, I wasn't reading novels, as I didn't have the energy. But I'm finding them again, and loving them. Loving them so much. I just finished Light Boxes by Shane Jones. It's one of those tiny books that was published on a tiny press and then Spike Jonze was like, Hey, maybe I'll make this a movie, and then the Internet buzzed, and then Light Boxes was quickly, and too quietly in my opinion, scooped up by Penguin. But thank goodness so many people now have the opportunity to read this tiny book with such a big, beating, bloodied heart.

One book I would like to mention that might escape a lot of radars is Ben Mirov's Ghost Machine. I don't know what to call this book. A poetry book, yes, but there's something more there, something infinite, possibly timeless (I hate that word, but I think it's true here). It's a book of thought, a book of repetition, a book I wish I had written. It's a book at times so sad I have to look down, a book I am so grateful to have found.

And what about this Bob Hicok guy? How cool is he? His fragments of thought, his ideas of love, but he is a radar. Still, I mention.

Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who was impactful on your writing life?

Hi, Julianna Baggott, it was so nice to have met you back in 2006.

Gregory Sherl is the author of Heavy Petting (YesYes Books), as well as the forthcoming collections The Oregon Trail is the Oregon Trail (Mud Luscious Press, 2012) and Monogamy Songs (Future Tense Books, 2012). His poetry has appeared in Columbia Poetry Review, Redactions, diode, Gargoyle, and Sycamore Review. He blogs at

To read more 1/2 Dozens by novelists, essayists, poets,
short story writers, and agents, click on the below.

Laurie Foos

Susan Henderson

Chantel Acevedo

Caroline Leavitt

Danica Novgorodoff

Rebecca Rasmussen

Laurel Snyder

Tatjana Soli

Julie Buxbaum

Randy Susan Meyers

John McNally

Justin Manask (agent)

Melissa Senate

Steve Kistulentz

Christopher Schelling (agent)

Dani Shapiro

Jeff VanderMeer

Catherine McKenzie

Emily Rapp

Stephanie Cowell

Elizabeth Stuckey-French

Paul Elwork

William Lychack

Leah Stewart

Michelle Herman

Lise Haines

Benjamin Percy

Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Karen Salyer McElmurray

Kim MacQueen

Crystal Wilkinson

Michael Griffith

Laura Dave

The Most Historic Night in Baseball -- Why It Matters, to me.

I'm embarrassed to confess this but we pay for the MLB Network. Why? For nights like last night ... when the sportscasters sweat through their suits, jump up and down and sprint around the studio (while trying to be silent), and aren't silent and therefore (with a pinched-off scream) give away the possibility of insanity going on in another ballpark, a night when they try to explain the enormity of an historic night -- search for words like "Oh, the humanity!" -- and finally clasp their hands together as if in prayer and bow their heads, right there on live TV, overcome.

Check out this beauty.

So, let's back up because last night was an incredible sight to behold and here are two things that made it different than any baseball I'd ever seen before:

1. The effect of the way information now travels -- all the way to the guy up to bat (in this case, Longoria)

and, weirdly,

2. Copyright laws on live play versus immediate replay.

In case you don't know, last night is being touted as the most record-breaking night in baseball history. (If you're a poet, you should think in terms of perfect formal poetry. If you're a mathematician, you should think of the term "elegance.")

Maybe you're jaded, thinking that the OCD tradition of record-keeping in baseball could very well be broken any night (like astronomers constantly telling us that some star-gazing event will never happen again in our lifetime -- so wake up at 4 am and sit on the hood of your car etc... to which I say, "No thanks.").

But your jadedness is wrong. It was, in fact, incredible.

First of all, it was stunning to watch -- and to watch with a long-suffering occasionally redeemed Red Sox fan, Dave Scott. When I first met Dave, it was terrifying to watch him watch baseball -- how he'd slide off the couch onto his knees, crawl to the screen, pleadingly, then collapse to his chest or shoot into the air. The dogs leave, as scared of sorrow and loss as displays of elated joy.

So what was stunning was that this Red Sox fan was able to back-pocket the fact that his team was part of what he deemed "the most perfect collapse in baseball history" to sit back and be awed by the baseball being played.

In history, no team has ever been 7 down (7-0) in the 9th, come back, and win a bid to the play offs -- like the Rays.

All year long, if the Red Sox were winning in the 8th inning, they won -- this record was solid. But last night, fighting for their bid, they lost it at the end.

The Orioles were one of the worst teams in baseball, but beat the Sox five out of the last 7 games, and were spoilers, knocking them out of contention.

Meanwhile, Atlanta gave up a great lead in the wild card race. Atlanta was leading the Phillies in the 9th, but the Phillies turned it. Done. With nothing to gain or lose -- the Phillies were already in -- but they played their 162nd game of the season with heart.

The crazy part is that each of the games were being broadcast at the same time. The MLB network didn't have rights to the live games but they were broadcasting the immediate replays, bouncing between the three games. This was the way to watch it -- to get the most historic view.

So, as Longoria is coming up to bat, he hears the news -- immediately -- that the Red Sox have lost. To listen to Longoria interviewed later, you'd be convinced that he was just focusing on doing the job at hand -- just get the ball in play, he was saying to himself. But the news of the Red Sox loss had to have pushed a new rush of adrenaline into his body. No way around it. Longoria's up to bat.

And we know Longoria's up to bat. We know that he's hot right now, having already hit a three-run home to make it 7-3 to 7-6 -- in the 8th inning -- but we can't watch it live. We have to wait for the feed to play and then the immediate replay.

But, in studio, two sportscasters are watching the live feeds -- Harold Reynolds and Dan Plesac -- while a third is reporting to us, in the same studio, just feet away. Off camera, Harold Reynolds lets out a pinched-off scream while watching the live feed of Longoria at bat. No other way to describe it. And so we know -- or think we know -- that Longoria has hit a home run.

But we have to wait.

And it's crazy ... there's something strangely old-fashioned about this waiting and about the unbridled joy of the sportscasters. We hold our breaths ... and then they show it. Longoria's home run -- a walk-off.

So, Dave's thinking back to Wakefield giving up the home run in 2003. He was numb, heart-dead for a few days. But this time, he saw wildness and perfection and the true beauty of possibility. His heart's okay. His heart's still beating. Does he still sometimes mutter: The Atlanta Braves broke the record for the worst collapse in baseball history and held onto it for less than a half-hour before the Red Sox stole it from them? Yes, yes, he does mutter this.

I'll be honest. It's been a really hard month for our family. Really hard -- in some ways beautiful, in many ways wrenching, and it's all brought us closer together. And last night, I loved watching my husband watch sports. I love that it all still makes his heart race. I love this boyish beauty. I love this hopefulness. I love that it still matters.

Moreover, last night was a display of determination, of sheer will, of heart. It reminds us of our resilience and of possibility and ... hope. It's only a game, of course. But, these days, I'll take any excuse to talk about determination, will, and heart and any reminder of resilience and possibility and hope I can get my hands on.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Big Press? Small Press? Or Going Solo?


Big Press, Small Press, and Going Indie: What I’ve Learned from Each

By Kim Wright

In an eighteen month period, I will have published a mainstream/literary novel with a large press, a nonfiction book on writing with a small press, and will have self-pubbed a genre book on Kindle. I know. I sound at best indecisive and at worst slap-dab crazy. But I see myself as someone who’s laying multiple bets at the publishing roulette wheel, hoping that if one chip doesn’t pay off, another will.

The best of times and the worst of times, the present market is both terrifying and full of potential. Each of the three major routes – big press, small press, indie – have their own advantages and disadvantages, but the really good news is that you can proceed on all three fronts at once, publishing your books in the way that most suits their genre and audience.

Here are the basic pluses and minuses of each method – plus my takeaway from the experience.

BIG PRESS ADVANTAGES: They can launch you, sell a significant number of copies of your book, and perhaps even – if the gods smile – make you a household name. You’ll get an advance and an opportunity for worldwide distribution that the other methods can’t match. You may get reviews or a book tour or a movie deal or plush toys based on your characters. And even if you don’t get any of these things, mainstream publishing earns you a type of respect that never goes away.

BIG PRESS DISADVANTAGES: It’s hard to get through the door, as any writer who has searched years for an agent or publisher can tell you. And once you get through the door, your publisher may ignore you in order to throw more cash and attention toward already-established authors. You have a very limited time frame (usually around three months) in which to launch your book and if you don’t garner good press and decent sales – at least enough to pay back the advance – it will be harder to sell your second book.

MY TAKEAWAY: It’s scary to be a tiny fish in a big pond and disheartening when your very own editors aren’t that interested in your very own book. I know a lot of writers who have suffered almost a type of post-traumatic-stress-syndrome after being published by a big house and subsequently watching their books go nowhere. I’ve cried. I’ve thrown up. Would I do it again? You betcha. In a post-traumatic New York minute. I need the money, I like the prestige, and there’s always a chance you’ll be one of the few who break through. But this time I’m trying to be a little smarter about it…shelving my literary follow-up to Love in Mid Air and approaching the market with a historical mystery that’s more in line with what’s being bought.

SMALL PRESS ADVANTAGES: This is probably the publishing experience you dreamed of – a committed editor, an enthusiastic (if miniscule) staff, and a mutually respectful, team-like approach to editing and selling your book. Your opinion about titles, covers, and such will be taken into far greater account than if you went with a large press. Small presses give you longer to develop a readership and sell your book. And if you’re dealing with experimental fiction, short stories, or poetry - or if you were unable to get an agent - a small press is far more likely to consider your work than a big press that’s looking exclusively for blockbusters.

SMALL PRESS DISADVANTAGES*: Forget the advance. Probably forget the reviews in major players like People and the New York Times. You may not find your book in bookstores at all, since many small presses don’t bother with the hassles of distribution and prefer to sell exclusively online. When it comes to promotion, the small staff means you’ll probably end up doing a lot of the grunt work yourself. While some small press books rise to national or international prominence, the odds are against it.

MY TAKEAWAY: What a sweet easy dream of an experience and how many great people I’ve met along the way! Would I do it again? Yes, with projects which are probably destined to have a smaller audience anyway, such as short fiction. I’d bring in more help – a personal assistant or intern to help pull some of the load on publicity and production because now that I understand fully how hard the staffs at small presses work. And I would look outside the box for ways to market the book. In the absence of bookstore placement and national reviews, blog tours and small, focused readings matter more than ever.

INDIE ADVANTAGES: Nobody can tell you no. Your book can be for sale on Amazon and other sites within days. Especially if you price your ebooks at 99 cents to entice readers, you can gradually build up a steady income stream that can go on for as long ereaders continue to gain market share. And you get to keep a far bigger percentage of that income stream than you can expect from either large press or small press books. The stigma against indie publishing is fading and this route no longer requires the big up-front payments that were required in the bad old days of vanity presses.

INDIE DISADVANTAGES: You have to do everything – and I do mean EVERYTHING - yourself. Writing the book, formatting it, choosing the cover, marketing. Especially marketing. There are experts to help you if you simply aren’t up to these tasks but their fees come out of your own pocket. The promotion is endless – when you stop promoting the book, your online rankings and sales can fall overnight. This promotion is made all the tougher by the fact many reviewing outlets, from blogs to newspapers, won’t write about Indie books. While some authors have found crazy levels of Indie success, most don’t.

MY TAKEAWAY: This is an ever-evolving world and writers have to be extremely strategic and smart. You also have to be aware that low-priced self-pubbed ebooks work best when they’re quick, light reads and ideally part of a series. The people who are succeeding are those who have multiple books for sale and have learned how to piggy-back publicity for one into sales for another. Would I do it again? The jury is still out on that, since my co-author and I are launching the first in our genre series next month. If we make money at it, then yes, we’ll write more. I see this as the equivalent of my old career as a magazine writer, where I had small ongoing projects to supplement my oh-so-sporadic income from fiction. And it’s not strictly about the money. Having the whole project completely within my own control is a bit of a balm after the big press experience, in which the writer loses control almost the second she sells her book.

Overwhelming, huh? No wonder so many writers drink. But the really good news hidden inside this puzzle is that there are more ways for writers to find readers than ever before and our futures are largely in our own hands. The environment is a bit Darwinesque, but the adaptable and clever will survive, especially if they bring a clear-headed evaluation to each project and really think about which path to publication works best for them.

Kim Wright is the author of Love in Mid Air (Grand Central) and Your Path to Publication (Press53). You can follow her on Twitter at Kim_Wright_W or become a Facebook fan of Love in Mid Air to receive notifications of her future blog posts.

*Baggott pops in to note that small and independent press contracts need to be as carefully eyed as big NYC publishing contracts. There is more standard language in the big publishing house contracts and independent publishers sometimes have territorial clauses that need to be stricken. (I don't think it's a purposeful attempt to be territorial. It's simply that those contracts aren't as standardized by the industry.) Don't sign ANY contracts without having a lawyer look at them.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

41 and Pregnant? Sections I, II and III.

I'm pregnant. I'm 41. I have four kids already -- all planned (weird, I know). Um. This one's of the non-planned variety.


FIRST, I would like to preemptively address some of my friends out there ...

To my zero population growth environmentalist friends: Listen, Republicans are out-populating us. I'm just doing my best to populate with some enviro-friendly Dems. So, back off.

To my friends who are like "Baggott pregnant again? Sarcastic gasp! (Yawn.)" -- It's cool. I get it. We can talk about other stuff. I won't baby-talk your heads off.

To my academic peeps who really live a life of the mind not the body -- I know I'm a reminder of our base animal nature. That's hard. It's actually very messy and growl-y. But, hate to tell you, you are an animal. We are all animals -- we just occasionally wear hats.

To many trying to get knocked up in your 40s -- maybe I'm a little ray of hope? Fertility is brutally unfair, and I've written some of you love letters along with this announcement. I want your babies to find you -- however that happens. (I feel like I have a greedy heart, and that it's on display.)

To those of you NOT trying to get knocked up at any age -- I offer myself as your cautionary whale.

To those of you who already know, who've been buoyant and generous and calm -- Thank you. I'll never forget those kindnesses.


FEARS. It's early. I've miscarried before. I've written about miscarriage, which is shrouded in silence. I wasn't going to announce the pregnancy early on because of that fear -- that I would have to announce a miscarriage. The truth is that I believe miscarriage -- if more openly aired -- might help with grief. Right now it operates as a secret society. Once you say you've miscarried, a network of women appears -- sometimes people you've known all your life but didn't know this ... To feel that so many had been there before me was very comforting. Also, I respect -- deeply -- those who choose not to announce early. But, also, I believe that if someone wants to share news of a pregnancy, they shouldn't have to whisper news of a loss. Loss is part of life.

I'm older. I've seen the charts. I know that my risks of having a child with health issues is much much higher than with my other pregnancies. I'm simply accepting the fact that we don't know -- day to day -- what any of our lives might bring, and soldiering on.

One thing about being a life-long hypochondriac is that there's some kind of weird zen hormone that's released into my system when I'm pregnant. I'm calmer, in general. Not laid back, no. There is no laid back version of Baggott. But I'm, you know, just on the hyper side of normal which is about seven notches down from where I normally exist. An upside.


I'm going to get to the insane hysteria of the weekend we found out here ... But my mother -- hyperphobic matriarch extraordinare -- is sending me Churchill quotes -- I kid you not -- stuff like "Here's Churchill's message to his people during WWII, 'KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON.'"

(It makes you think -- do I sound a little shaken up in my phone calls? Like I'm calling from a bomb shelter?)

So, this is all I'm writing today, because I have to have time to CARRY ON. Don't we all.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Author's Assitant Needed. Geekiness a plus.

[This is a serious job post. This job might be perfect for a college-age or even mature(ish) high-school student or lonesome blogger.]

Geek needed. Preferably a Goth and/or Hipster Geek who's organized and tech-savvy and reads too much genre fiction.

It's basically an unglamorous job. It entails drudgery and schlepping. The person who takes on the position can do a lot of it from home -- noodling with blogger hyperlinks, creating educational stuff, occasionally having to sound smart on the phone.

It'd be great if this person knew basic technological stuff -- like the concept behind tweeting and how to navigate the jungles of goodreads and what an app is. Being bloggerish, readerly, into genre (seriously, zombie-fans welcome) are all a plus.

Part-time. $10/hour. Email or message Julianna Baggott at Facebook.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

1/2 Dozen for Erin Morgenstern

Erin Morgenstern's debut novel

is getting tons of pre-pub buzz.
It's gonna be a biggie, people.
Here's a quick 1/2 Dozen with the author who does naughty things with commas and spent a lot of time building Egyptian pyramids ...

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

Murakami’s 1Q84. Chocolate salted caramel cupcakes. Vintage fountain pens. Bon Iver’s Bon Iver.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

I think my relationship with writing goes beyond the page, so much of my process occurs in daydreaming wonderings and ideas that strike me on trains or in the shower. I do like the actual writing-writing once I get a rhythm going. Sometimes it’s difficult to get started but I do enjoy it, there’s something exciting in the process at the stages where the story is so filled with possibility.

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

Always carry a pen. Or a pencil. Or a phone you can type on if you’re a better phone typist than I am.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

I was quiet and bookish with an overactive imagination. I read a lot and played dress-up and built Egyptian temples in my backyard because I read Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game one too many times. I think spending a lot of time in my head or in books influenced my writing development, even though I didn’t start writing seriously until I was much older.

Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?

Always. I usually start with place and develop characters and story after the setting has evolved. I love books that feel like destinations, like places to be visited, so I try to capture that in my own writing.

What's your worst writerly habit?

I often have to be in the mood to write. I’m not a write every day writer, I think about writing every day but I don’t always put words down on the page.

Also, I do naughty things with commas.

Erin Morgenstern is a debut novelists
and mixed artist who lives in Massachusetts.

Monday, September 12, 2011

My Smart Kid Actually LIKES to Read : How to Boost a Book (with author Laurel Snyder)

Okay, I've written the posts MY SMART KID HATES TO READ Part I and Part II.

But ... what if your smart kid actually LIKES to read. Well, first of all, that's fantastic news for the people who have smart kids who hate to read because liking to read can be contagious. So, seriously, think about starting a book club for kids ...

But also there are ways to engage a book -- to have it lead you to other books, to get to know the author (either through interviews or sometimes even live, via the wonders of technology), to make the book reading interactive through food, music, art projects, and by talking books in the house and with friends ...

So, to that end, I'll be posting a few interviews with writers of kid books to talk about how to BOOST the experience of reading one of their books.

Today's book pick is (DRUM ROLL) BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX by Laurel Snyder.

QUESTION #1: If the parental types reading this book loved books by Zilpha Keatly Snyder and Eva Ibbotson in their childhood, they will dig books by Laurel Snyder, in particular BIGGER THAN A BREADBOX. Why do you think that is?

Wow. I'm just realizing that I'm not sure what the best comparison author might be for Bigger than a Bread Box. Usually, my books get compared to Eager and Enright, but this one feels different. It's very much a cross between an issue book (it's about parents who are separating) and a magic book. Several reviews have referred to it as magic realism, but I think they just mean it's a magic book set in a more realistic family. The Headless Cupid is the book that feels closest to me, I think.

QUESTION TWO: If you're listening to music while reading BIGGER THAN A BREADBOX, it should be Springsteen. Why?

Because in fact the book was partially inspired by the song Hungry Heart, which was deeply important for me as a kid, in the years when my own parents were splitting up. I've worked the song into the book (thank you, Bruce, for the rights!) But maybe it's better to say that people should listen to music that makes them a little sad, whatever that is...

QUESTION THREE: If you're going to EAT something and READ this book at the same time, you should whip up some gravy fries. Why? (Instructions necessary?)

The magic in this book takes the form of a vintage bread box, and all the wishes have to fit inside it. When Rebecca (our main character) finds herself unable to wish for what she really wants (her dad and her home in Baltimore) she consoles herself with the foods that remind her of home-- so the book is actually littered with references to UTZ chips and Berger cookies, Tastykakes (chocolate kandykakes, to be precise) and most of all GRAVY FRIES. Which I miss, living in Atlanta.

Gravy fries are very complicated to make. Take fries. Pour on gravy. Salt and pepper to taste. I don't know why you can't find them in the rest of the world!

QUESTION FOUR: If you're going to get a Kid Book Group together and read Breadbox, what's a fun something you can do to make it more fun?

This might sound goofy, but I actually really LOVE old bread boxes (which is how I came to write the book), and you can find them at most junk stores. I think this might lend itself to a really interesting collage project. Get old magazines and have the kids try to make art out of the boxes. A bread box makes a great keepsake box-- and kids like privacy. It's also an interesting jumping off point for a conversation about wishing. Wishing becomes more complicated when you limit it this way. I'd love to know what the kids would wish for if they had Rebecca's box!

QUESTION FIVE: For the TEACHERLY TYPES, if you read Breadbox as a read aloud in your class, will Laurel Snyder skype in for a few minutes to answer questions?

Of course! I've got a study guide ready for any teachers who are interested, and I'm skyping a ton this fall.

QUESTION SIX: Laurel, did you talk books in your household growing up?

Oh, wow, yes. My mom was an English teacher and my grandmother was a children's librarian. Plus, I went to the library after school every single day (Enoch Pratt FOREVER!) until my mom could come to get me. I read constantly. And anyone who knows me can tell you I TALK constantly. SO it goes without saying I talked books.

QUESTION SEVEN: Do you talk books in your household now?

Yes! Though my husband only reads nonfiction (if I'd known that, would I have married him? I wonder...) But we talk a lot about books. My sons are 4 and 5 and we're just getting to a place where we read longer books. Last week we read The Wonderful O as a family. It's really nice to be starting all over again, experiencing these books I love so much with my kids. We also talk a lot about comic books, I must confess. I'm an expert on the X Men.

QUESTION EIGHT: After folks read BREADBOX together, what should they read next?

If I ever finish the book I'm working on right now they can read that! It's a prequel to Bread Box, and follows Rebecca's mother on a time travel adventure, from 1987 to 1937.

Until that's finished, I'd suggest anyone who hasn't read Polly Horvath immediately read The Canning Season. That's my obsession right now. It's a wonderful book. I like sadness and adventure running alongside each other.

To read more from Laurel, click here.

Laurel Snyder is the author of three novels for children, Penny Dreadful, Any Which Wall and Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains OR The Search for a Suitable Princess (Random House) and two picture books, Inside the Slidy Diner and Baxter the Kosher Pig. (Tricycle). In addition to her books for children, Laurel has written two books of poems, Daphne & Jim: a choose-your-own-adventure biography in verse (Burnside Review Press, 2005) and The Myth of the Simple Machines (No Tell Books, 2007). She also edited an anthology of nonfiction, Half/Life: Jew-ish tales from Interfaith Homes (Soft Skull Press, 2006) A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former Michener-Engle Fellow, Laurel has published work in the Utne Reader, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Revealer, Salon, The Iowa Review, American Letters and Commentary, and elsewhere. She is an occasional commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered, but most of all, she is a mom.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Why I Signed.

Here's the Open Letter, published in The New York Observer yesterday, that's making some waves in the academic creative writing community. It was signed by almost 200 poets and writers who teach in creative writing programs across the country. I was one of them. Here's why I signed.

First, what are we contesting?

Poets & Writers rankings of the "Best" MFA programs in the country.

The main problem with the rankings, for me, is that to decide what the Best programs are, they've polled prospective applicants to MFA programs asking them about what programs they'd like to apply to.

Love this quote in the magazine piece: “It’s analogous to asking people who are standing outside a restaurant studying the menu how they liked the food,” said Leslie Epstein, novelist and Boston University program director. (Random plug for Leslie Epstien's work: If you haven't read a novel by Leslie Epstein, do so.)

When someone says something is a list of the BEST, I want to know that it's been judged by people who understand the industry. The BEST wines, well, I want the judges to know wines. I want the judges to bring a measure of professionalism, knowledge of the field, and deep experience to the process of judging. If they don't yet have that experience, why would I need them? (It feels a little American Idol to me.)

It turns out that I'm friendly with (though have never met in person) the man behind the rankings. Seth Abramson, a poet and lawyer. And I understand why Seth has poured so much time and energy into getting data to prospective students. In fact, his efforts have been valiant. Before the ranking, there was very little out there that was current -- in forms of the rankings we're all familiar with. (A few years ago, the Atlantic Monthly scratched the surface with a top ten MFA and top five PhD program listing.) And I actually do send students to Abramson's blog, where he used to announce a lot of this polling before Poets & Writers picked up the data and started to devote a cover issue to it.

Of course, I told Seth my frustrations with the rankings -- which I find deeply misleading in the way that Poets & Writers bills them as "Best". Seth and I have argued, pretty heatedly about this. His issue -- from what I've gathered -- is that the prospective students were the ones willing to provide data and that it was nearly impossible to collect data from overworked programs. I think that one of Seth's main goals early on was transparency -- to make it easy to have data on program web sites, to give facts and figures about financial aid right there in black and white ... And these are good goals. More data was a good cause.

But the problem is that this quest started to drive the bus. In particular: funding and participation from schools to work with Seth (whether they were frustrated or overworked or wanted to opt out...) and financial aid.

In this economy, it's insane to believe that financial aid isn't a priority for the vast majority of students. Also, the MFA doesn't lead to a six-figure job in a law office. As a result, going into debt for it is NOT wise. The programs with the best funding might make them the BEST for one student, but not for all students.

When I look at college guide books -- and I do it PLENTY -- with my 16 year old daughter, hell YES, tuition is something I look at and think about (A LOT). (I've got a BUNCH of college tuition coming at me in the next 20 years or so -- hundreds of thousands of dollars worth, potentially.) But, still, it doesn't drive my bus in all decision-making.

In fact, my daughter is looking at art schools, going into a field that's catch phrase includes the word "starving". She will probably apply to RISDI -- arguably the BEST art school in the country -- and RISDI is a very expensive school. So expensive that it makes my ribs ache a little. If she gets in, we will suck it up. Now, take me to a contest between two mid-tier art schools and give me a 20k differential in the cost, and the less expensive school would turn my head. These are pressure points everyone must weigh for themselves.

Before attending, my daughter and I would visit the prospective schools. We'd look at the work by the students and the graduates and current faculty. We would see the art spaces, facilities. We'd get the shake down on the mandatory courses and the options for things like ceramics and glass blowing and iron works. We'd get a feel for how traditional or experimental the programs are. We'd look around the town/city -- decide if it could feel like a home. (We've already started to do these things.) And basically, these are similar things that I was looking at when I chose my MFA program -- UNCG.

(Wait. Is this just sour grapes? Did the university where I teach do badly? Well, actually we didn't do well at all on the MFA list -- we didn't make the top 50, but -- weirdly, as we're the same faculty, doing the same thing, in the same place, with the same approaches -- we were ranked #2 on the PhD rankings list out of 15. And many of the schools in the top ten were represented in the signatures on the open letter.)

What I really like about the Open Letter is that it gives some sound advice to prospective students. It cautions them, and when people ask if they should go for an MFA in creative writing, I caution them.

But the fact is, I remember when I found out there was such a thing as an MFA in creative writing. I was in college, studying Creative Writing at Loyola College, which was one of very few colleges to offer CRW as an undergrad major at that point. And as soon as I heard that there was a place where you could study how to write fiction with writers who knew their craft, I knew that's where I go. I was compelled. There's no other word for it. It wasn't about a job. It was about this craft, this life -- words on the page.

And amid all of the arguing and fuming on this issue of rankings, I can't help but think that it's comforting that people are passionate about this simple idea -- how to get in a room with other writers and learn this craft.

This handing down of craft is something that all of us -- the faculty at MFA and PhD programs, Poets and Writers magazine, and Seth Abramson -- are dedicated to.

[Corrections to original post: Poets & Writers doesn't use the word "best" -- they use the word "top". And in this same issue of Poets & Writers , they, too, give advice to prospective MFA students, featuring 26 program directors in their own words.]

Thursday, September 8, 2011

1/2 Dozen for Jennifer Militello

A 1/2 Dozen with
who gives beautiful advice on
not seeking balance,
writing as a long marriage,
the hard work that prepares you
for the page,
and how we can return
to childhood to find
what's genuine.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

Were it human, the page could be unshaven, teeth unbrushed, could be waking from a wicked hangover, could be emerging from an unshowered week of camping deep in the woods, and yet remain somewhat attractive to me.

This because our relationship resembles a lengthy marriage.

I wish I could say that the page and I were fast friends, that we spend time together frivolously and gracefully and both walk away from that time blissful and refreshed. However, our relationship is a victim and product both of passion and habit. Like a spouse or long-term partner, I see it at its worst, and vice versa. There are moments of magnetism so strong I can taste it. There are sustained valleys of semi-indifference. There are maybe even one or two moments of genuine, if fleeting, doubt.

But then we go on the honeymoon of a new idea or an interesting metaphor or a working bit of music. We go down into the deep like that together. Then there’s nothing like it. Anywhere. Ever. And overall there is a faith that the good times outweigh the bad. That in the long run the page and I will agree, we will kiss and make up, we will always manage to stir another romance from what seem like cold and unpromising ashes.

Somehow I always manage to return with unsullied eyes and fall madly in love all over again.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

I was a bookworm child inside a bookworm childhood.

I bit my fingernails so badly they bled.

On my fourth birthday, I was given a parakeet and I immediately taught him to talk so that he could call himself a pretty bird while looking in his hanging mirror.

My mother was a reading teacher, and yet my reading habits struck her as so extreme that she worked hard during the summers to get me to go out and play with the neighbors’ kids. But all I wanted was that safe haven, one safe haven or another created by my imagination.

I knew the calls of the autumn mallards sounded like laughter. I was a child of the comparison. I still am.

I learned early on to keep writing to myself.

I also understood the daunting implications of death by the age of ten. This led me to reject the carpe diem of childhood and instead watch the networks the creek cracked into when I skipped a stone and fall in love with the snarl of branches webbing the crabapple tree.

Reading made me feel deliciously alone and also less alone. I wanted to wrap up all that complexity and pass it along.

And when I spend the most genuine hours at my desk, I am inside that childhood again, looking at a world I believe I can reinvent, confident in the imagination as a force equal to all the others I have encountered since.

Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

God, no. But maybe balance is not the thing I’m going for. I’m not weighing my heart against a feather in order to pass into the underworld. I’m not even wanting a fair price for gold. Maybe I need something more extreme. Maybe what I am looking for is closer to schizophrenia.

In other words, I don’t believe there is a balance between my work and my family, the two things that consume me most, because I choose to do each fully and with a certain degree of abandon. Both sides feel too heavy for the scales. My nature will not let me divide these things in half so that they can be placed on the tidy pans that measure out my life.

So in order to do this at all (never mind well), I must split myself into that person who can both appreciate the world’s most stunning pair of children and spend hours honing language to an edge. I am obsessed with finding time to write. When I am given time to write, I am obsessed with getting back to my family. But I wanted both of these things. I am prepared to live by fire.

So maybe I am actually weighing my heart against a feather. With the hefty lightness of all that’s in my heart, maybe it’s possible I’ll earn the other side?

Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who was impactful on your writing life?

In seventh grade, I had a teacher named Mrs. Kachanis. She was the first (and maybe the only) English teacher I had who seemed to think that writing poetry was a perfectly acceptable thing to do. She brought Emily Dickinson in to talk to us. She had us write poems and decorate them with artwork and string them together into a vivid, handmade book.

But more than that, she was fun. I don’t think she ever wore funny hats or brightly-colored scarves, but maybe her personality was a series of funny hats and brightly-colored scarves. She felt like Mary Poppins to me, quirky and magical and nourishing, allowing me (encouraging me, even!) to do those creative, forbidden things in broad daylight and calling them absolutely sweet.

She advocated for the poems I was spending time on in a way that no one would again until college. She called me her munchkin. She wasn’t mad that I was reading random other books, sometimes during class.

And she provided me with the support I would need to survive eighth grade English with Mr. Grenier, a man with bad suits and bad skin who diagrammed sentences on the board and quizzed us on the Latin origin of words; by the first week, he had me sitting in the back of class and actively ignoring all he said. He was sure to repeatedly inform me that I would never amount to anything if I chose to pursue my love of English. Without that buffer of Mrs. Kachanis’ previous acceptance and enthusiasm and love, I would have been crushed under the gaze he offered me over his bifocals when he found me daydreaming or secretly writing poems in the last row of his class.

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

I worked my way through college waiting tables. While my roommates were partying or studying, I was handing off burgers and turkey dinners to tables, wearing a starched white uniform and filthy sneakers, taking the bus home after my shift, sitting up late at night rolling the coins from my tips, and then going to bed to be ready for my 8 am class.

What could be a better preparation for the writing of poems?

To begin with, the job required, and developed in me, a pretty intense work ethic. I was on my feet for hours, engaged in an activity that required my full attention and working myself to sheer exhaustion.

Even more importantly, while waitressing I found that if I wanted to keep customers happy, I had to be one step ahead of them in presenting the very item they would be wanting next. A good member of any waitstaff knows what her customers need almost before they do, and provides it before they have time to wonder when it will arrive. I had to get some man a refill on his glass of water while checking to see whether the woman at the counter needed more coffee while getting a check to table seven while heading for the steaming hot plates in the kitchen that had just come up and were ready to be served. I had to learn to orchestrate five or six or ten different independent environments at once and find a rhythm to bind them together in a single series of movements and exchanges. I had to manage a multitude of happenings and predicted outcomes and possible scenarios. And I had to do it all while wearing a face that was not quite my own.

When I am writing a poem, I am asking my brain to focus and multitask in a similar way. I am bringing together items, images, moments, and descriptions in a similar composition. I am juggling metaphors and turns of language so that the poem is ruled by one fluent and unbroken flow. I am working to create a well-tuned device that can see and predict and deliver and shift and serve the reader whatever they might need.

And then there are the tips. Sometimes there were good tips. Other times, there were none. But we all know that the muse can be a stingy widower on a fixed income. Just as we know to stay hopeful about that new set of customers always walking through the door.

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

Ginger snaps. Novellas that are written as prose poems and poems that are written as essays and short stories that read more like poems. Attractive and functional pocket notebooks. Oh, and I’m a newcomer to Facebook so I'm spending a lot of time there. Come be my friend!

Jennifer Militello is the author of Flinch of Song, winner of the Tupelo Press First Book Award, and of the chapbook Anchor Chain, Open Sail. Her poems have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, The North American Review, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and Best New Poets 2008. Her second book, Body Thesaurus, is forthcoming from Tupelo Press.

To read more 1/2 Dozens by novelists, essayists, poets,
short story writers, and agents, click on the below.

Laurie Foos

Susan Henderson

Chantel Acevedo

Caroline Leavitt

Danica Novgorodoff

Rebecca Rasmussen

Laurel Snyder

Tatjana Soli

Julie Buxbaum

Randy Susan Meyers

John McNally

Justin Manask (agent)

Melissa Senate

Steve Kistulentz

Christopher Schelling (agent)

Dani Shapiro

Jeff VanderMeer

Catherine McKenzie

Emily Rapp

Stephanie Cowell

Elizabeth Stuckey-French

Paul Elwork

William Lychack

Leah Stewart

Michelle Herman

Lise Haines

Benjamin Percy

Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Karen Salyer McElmurray

Kim MacQueen

Crystal Wilkinson

Michael Griffith

Laura Dave

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

How to Build Your own MFA Experience

For some unknown reason there is a pervasive (and stubborn) notion that one shouldn't need to be taught how to write. Aside from most every other occupation -- from electrician to obstetrician -- and most every other art and craft, it seems that people think writers should emerge from within themselves, wholly formed, preferably having learned the discipline in complete solitude -- like in the middle of the woods near a pond.

Hey, if that's your thing, there are plenty of writing teachers who would be happy not teach you. And there are a few wooded ponds still in existence.

However, this isn't necessarily what I'd suggest. Instead, I suggest you find people who've been where you are before and ask them questions. Does that mean you have to get an MFA? No. It doesn't. (In fact, below, I'm going to give some instructions on how to build your own MFA experience without actually enrolling in a program.) But you can't ignore the MFA existence.

In fact, let me tell you what I've started telling people at conferences -- small groups of writers who are serious enough about their own work to commit to a conference (though often just starting out): what your competition is up to.

I've said that, in those early years, I could have learned what I did about writing (more or less) without an MFA -- but it would have taken seven years instead of the intensity of two. The MFA allowed me to submerge myself in writing. The professors and the workshop itself are one thing. But what happens during the MFA is that you're surrounded by other people committed to words, language, story. You get to read what writers read; you learn how to read as a writer instead of as a page-turner; you go to readings and Q and A's; you learn a vocabulary; you talk about writing at meals and late into the night; even when you're just swapping tales, you're with other younger writers swapping tales, which is different; you're gathering a chorus of critical voices who dog you and push you; you're working to define your aesthetic in defiance of those around you; you're inspired and toughened by your peers; you have deadlines; you have to articulate your thoughts, your process ... It goes on and on ...

THAT is what your competition is up to...

And it doesn't end there. The PhD students -- after 2-3 years of MFA -- are kicking in another intensive 4-5 years of concentration, effort, time, hours upon hours.

Not everyone can just bop off and get an MFA. Not everyone can even swing the commitment to a low residency. Not everyone wants to.

However, you can -- kind of -- build your own MFA degree, by hand. You can work with some of the best writers in the country, build your own circle of peers, and inject intensity into your writing life with occasional conferences ... It's all out there, if you know where to look. And you can hand-build your own education.

The non-MFA-going group was one I used to work with -- a lot. I had a Dining-room Table Group, a workshop that meet for 6-week cycles, when I wasn't yet affiliated with a university. This was in Delaware and, near the end, we had people who drove in from DC, New Jersey, PA, MD ... We were tight. We worked hard to achieve -- in some small measure -- what was going on elsewhere.

But these groups are rare -- especially ones that start working at a really high level. I suggest that you go to as many as you can find in your community and build relationships with just one or two people from each -- the ones who are serious and committed and who get your work as you get theirs. If you attend a conference, you can meet those one or two people, connect, and commit to swapping work.

And, over the years, I've also paid for editorial help -- as well as have given it. (I no longer do individual tutorials because I teach at FSU and have plenty of students to keep me busy -- and nearly blind!) With Girl Talk, I called up my alma mater UNC-G and asked for their best editor. I worked with Kathy Flann -- now a brilliant published author in her own right who teaches at Goucher College. I've done quid pro quo reading with friends as well as hunting down the best eyes I could find. I had two paid readers for PURE before it went out on the market -- as well as readers at my lit agency -- Sobel Weber and Associates.


But a really wonderful writer, novelist, essayist, poet ... who's published a lot of their own work and who has referrals from other students and who does a little test with you before diving into an entire novel or collection ... is a good thing. In fact, if you think of it more as a tutorial than a means to a publishing end -- more the way you'd view classes you're taking in an MFA program -- the better.

This model is well established in acting. In the old days, you didn't ask an actor, "Where did you get your MFA?" You asked, "Who have you studied with?" If the answer was Stella Adler, well, that meant something.

And then sometimes -- while building your network usually at a distance -- you might need the real thing. You might need to be with other writers, submerged in the writing world, enduring the intensity of workshop and coming up breathless. This is where conferences come in.

I WOULD AVOID CONFERENCES THAT ARE BILLED AS PITCH YOUR MANUSCRIPT TO AGENTS AND EDITORS. (There's a system of submitting that allows you not to leave your house.) But I'd concentrate instead on the ones with the intensive workshop element, the ones where you're learning your craft and meeting others who are serious -- not just about getting published but about this art form. Most of these also invite agents and editors as well. A few that come to mind: Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Sewanee Writers Conference, Writers @ Work, Writers in Paradise, Sanibel Writers Conference. Young adult writers check out Auburn's new YA writers conference. If a teen yourself, check out Auburn's YA conference, as well as Shared Worlds and one put together through SIU-Carbondale.

Of course, if your main goal is to get published, that's now easy. Everyone can self-publish.

But if your goal is to learn your craft, hone your art, and you want to study with someone who is a master in that art form, the mentors, the peers, and the conferences are out there.

Is it cheap? It's not law school but no. However the MFA comes with a lot of sacrifices and costs -- uprooting, rerooting, uprooting again; applying for fellowships; sometimes taking out loans; eating only beans and rice sometimes for a couple of years ... Will this be as intensive as an MFA? Likely not. But if the degree itself doesn't mean much to you -- let's say you're a chemist or a therapist and you like your work -- then you can gear it up or gear it down as you need to.

Okay. So I'm going to include a short list of a few writers -- across genres -- now offering tutorials and manuscript reads. If this were the faculty you were taking classes with the first year of your MFA program, you'd be in a good hands. These are people I trust as patient and rigorous teachers. (I will update this over time.)

CAROLINE LEAVITT is the New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You, and eight other novels: Girls In Trouble, Coming Back To Me, Living Other Lives, Into Thin Air, Family, Jealousies, Lifelines and Meeting Rozzy Halfway. Various titles were optioned for film, translated into different languages, and condensed in magazines. Her essays, stories and articles have appeared in Salon, Psychology Today, New York Magazine, Parenting,The Chicago Tribune, Parents, Redbook, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and numerous anthologies. She is an award-winning senior instructor/manuscript consultant at UCLA Writers Program online.

STEVE ALMOND is the author of five books of fiction, most recently the upcoming collection God Bless America, and five books of nonfiction, most notably Candyfreak. He also co-wrote a novel with me, Julianna Baggott, but that should only make me biased against him. He writes social and political commentary and his work is highly anthologized, including in the Best American anthology.

DAVE ELLIS DICKERSON is a regular contributor to NPR's This American Life, and the author of a memoir, House of Cards, about his years as a greeting card writer for Hallmark. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, StoryQuarterly, The Gettysburg Review, and Year's Best Fantasy & Horror. Contact him at

FRANK GIAMPIETRO is a poet whose first collection Begin Anywhere was published by Alice James Books, this was many years before he became an editor at Alice James. He's also published essays and written screenplays and he is fantastic at editing books that deal with the female psyche -- I know this firsthand. He's also worked at The Southern Review. (I'm indebted to his keen eye and you'll find his name in the acknowledgments pages of most of my books, regardless of genre.) Reach him:

And I'm going to tell you about one of my secret weapons, perfect for Young Adult and Middle Grade fiction that really moves: HEATHER WHITAKER. Heather hasn't yet published her first novel, but she is an incredibly skilled editor and patient teacher who writes detailed responses and has great one-on-one sessions. She can be reached at