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The Best AWP Ever

7 Mar

photo (9)Forgive my hyperbole, but I really enjoyed AWP this year. Maybe it was because this was the fourth I attended, so it was less overwhelming. Maybe it was because it was in Seattle, so I got to see so many friends and sleep in my own bed. Maybe it was because I had a chance to read alongside some really lovely writers. Maybe it was because I got to bring M to the book fair on Saturday and he made many tired exhibitors laugh. I *did* have violent heart palpitations the weekend before the conference as I stressed out over the three readings I had, but somehow these subsided by Tuesday, and by Thursday it was one big love fest. Here are some highlights.

Notes on the Practical

On Thursday I attended Kristen Young‘s panel Like Sand to a Beach: Bringing Your Book to Market. Jarrett Middleton of Dark Coast Press gave a really informative overview of the publishing process, especially when it comes to distribution. I had no idea how scary a pre-sales conference is (when a publisher pitches the merits of a title to all the big guns of a distributor and they try to poke holes in your marketing plan). I also didn’t know that a book has about 90 days or one quarter in a bookstore before it gets returned to the warehouse. Karen Maeda Allman of Elliott Bay Book Company gave the bookseller’s perspective. My favorite advice of hers about author events is to “invite everyone you know, encourage them to bring friends, and invite your ‘Kevin Bacon’ friend–the one who knows everyone.” All of her presentation slides are available on this beautiful Tumblr. Author Jonathan Evison emphasized building communities and taking the time to invite friends individually to your events rather than through mass emails. He also said, “Even if only six people come to your B & N event in south Austin, take the events coordinator to the Cheesecake Factory afterwards and get her drunk. She’ll keep selling your books.” Finally, Rachel Fershleiser of Tumblr gave an overview her experiences as a book publicist and of what she calls the “bookternet” — smart people being silly on the internet with sites like Last Night’s Reading.

A Controversial Panel

Friday morning I attended the panel Magic and Intellect. It was packed to the gills; magic must be popular! Something extraordinary occurred at this panel that so far one blogger I know of has recounted and it is worthwhile to read her account. I hope more people will write on it. I haven’t had the mind space to do so; I’m still processing. But I did come away from it feeling affirmed, that imaginative writing is necessary. Rikki Ducornet said, “The human mind & imagination cannot sustain itself in a constant state of emergency,” and Kate Bernheimer said, “Solutions in fairy tales often require radical acts. If you’re in an incestuous, abusive relationship, you might need to cut off your finger to use as a key to get out of a room.” And Rikki Ducornet offered this advice: “For a difficult book to be readable, ‘find a language that levitates somehow, that is scintillating'” (last quotation via Mackenzie Hulton on Twitter).

One Really Cool Thing from the Book Fair: Envisioning the Future of the Book

I cannot begin to describe the many, many books I acquired last week. So I will simply share one very cool thing, Columbia College Chicago’s Center for Book & Paper Expanded Artists’ Books. They displayed a hybrid artist book with heat-sensitive ink and an embedded iPad; if you pressed your hand on the page, different words erased and different words appeared on the iPad. What alchemy.

Readings Galore

I had the pleasure of reading fairy tales with Maya Sonenberg, Rikki Ducornet, and Valerie Arvidson. I was pleasantly surprised to see a fairly large room fill with people eager to hear stories. Somehow each of us included food in our stories–I hurriedly jotted the phrase “saffron buns and candied salmon” as Valerie read–and that made me immensely happy.

At Canoe Social Club, I read with Andrew Ladd, Michael Nye, and Wesley Rothman. I’d finished Andrew’s book What Ends Tuesday night and it had me sobbing by the end. In addition to making me think about the issues that got me crying, it got me thinking about the books that also made me cry like that–Sophie’s Choice, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn– so maybe I’ll write a separate post on that topic. I picked up Michael’s story collection Strategies Against Extinction; of course I will read the story “Sparring Vladimir Putin” first because obviously. I can’t wait. Wesley is working on a collection that may be called Sub-Woofer–keep your ears peeled!

Chris Abani and Chang-rae Lee did a wonderful reading and conversation. I already read The Secret History of Las Vegas (it’s powerful!), but hearing Chris read the opening and another section concerned with fairy tales gave me shivers.

I got to read with 13 others affiliated with the Univesity of Washington MFA and  the Cambridge Writers Workshop. We filled up Victrola’s back room and then most of us retired to Coastal Kitchen for drinks, snacks, and exquisite corpse. Coincidentally, I sat beside someone I’d only known through twitter and had no idea would be there. The future is now!

In the lovely subterranean Alibi Room, I got to see the UNC-Wilmington alumni reading, which featured several friends and which introduced me to the wonderful work of Rochelle Hurt and Kate Sweeney. You should check out their respective books, The Rusted City and American Afterlife. 

Finally, read Paul Constant’s take on the conference here, which includes high praise for my Furnace co-conspirator Corinne Manning and her Alice Blue chapbook “A Slow and Steady Eruption.” Hooray!

Visual Inspiration: Hugo at the Henry

25 Nov

I’m pleased to offer a third iteration of my writing with visual art class for Richard Hugo House at the Henry Art Gallery, now snappily-titled Visual Inspiration. Here’s the course description:

This class, which meets at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, will use visual art as a springboard for diving into prose writing. We’ll mine the inspiration of images to unearth new prose or add unexpected meaning and direction to works in progress. Students can search the Henry’s digital archive and request works from the permanent collection not currently on view. For even more creative percolation, we’ll read published works inspired by visual art. Exercises, readings, and discussions will cover the writing process, character, story, landscape (internal and external), and style. Students will have the option to workshop one short-short story or essay. Co-Presented with the Henry Art Gallery.

Class meets Thursday evenings 6-8 pm, January 30-March 13 (with no class on February 27 due to the AWP conference). General registration begins December 10, and the scholarship deadline is December 24. I’m excited to see what students do with “Sanctum,” the interactive installation now outside the Henry that draws on social media and surveillance technology, and I’m curious as always to see what gets pulled from the permanent collection and what new creative works spiral out from that.

Tale: A Two Day Moveable (Writing) Feast

5 Nov

ImageI’m excited to be teaching a class on fairy tales at Corinne Manning’s Living Room Workshops. Mid-December is wonderful time for contemplating magic, especially fairy tale magic. Here’s the course description, with nitty gritty info below:

Explore magical realism and fairy tales with 3 teachers over the course of one weekend in this moveable feast of a writing workshop. Participants will move from house to house gaining craft skills, knowledge, and writing some “marvelous” fiction and exploring the memoir as fairy tale. Readings will include Brothers Grimm, Angela Carter, and Alyssa Nutting.

Each class will last 1.5 hours and will take place in Capitol Hill and the Central District on Saturday, ending in Greenwood on Sunday. Carpooling is encouraged. Course must be taken as a whole. No single class drop ins. To enroll please email corinne.manning@gmail.com.

Tale: A Two-day Moveable (Writing) Feast

December 14- 15, Saturday and Sunday
Instructors: Corinne Manning, Anca Szilagyi, Anne Bean
Saturday: 1-2:30, 3-4:30 (Capitol Hill, Central District)
Sunday: 1-2:30 (Greenwood)
Cost: $100

Refilling the well

26 Oct
A fresh green chestnut

A fresh green chestnut

I’m retraining myself to write novels. My first novel is floating in the ether, I wrote a quick, rough draft of my second novel some time ago, I focused on finishing my short story collection, and now, with the leaves falling off the trees outside, I’m in my dark office x-raying that second novel to get at an outline.  I already had a couple outlines in hesitant pencil, one very bare bones, one a bit more detailed. But I’m hesitant to launch into a rewrite yet as I seem to still be in a fallow period. I’d have loved to take a suitcase full of books into the woods and just read for 10 days. Alas.  A decent second option was to bolt to Vancouver with M. for the weekend, where two writer friends were visiting from New York. We gorged ourselves on dim sum, wandered around Coal Harbor and the West End, had cocktails at Cloud 9, a bar that rotates on top of the Empire Landmark hotel and that has some very 1995 cocktails (we stuck to a gin martini and an old-fashioned), and went on a short, mild hike where we spotted purple and orange mushrooms and black slugs and a seal. We waved at the seal, and the seal seemed to give us a little nod before disappearing in the water, probably grumbling that we took his lunch spot, Cod Rock. All this to say, there are different ways to refill the well. Reading and travel (and with travel, eating) are some of my favorite ways. So is looking at art.

I feel a little out of shape, novel-writing-wise, because I’m at the difficult step where I’ve decided to rewrite entirely. The first draft was quick fun, throwing details on the page and seeing what sticks.  I want to be a lot more strategic about the second draft.  I decided to try using novel writing software, to help me feel less scattered, and a few friends recommended Scrivener. This morning I finally started to get the hang of it, and now I have a more detailed outline with fancy arrows and nesting files and everything. Soon (hopefully!) I can go deeper into the writing cave to write those scenes.

Outlining at this point feels helpful, but sometimes I outline when I’m stuck in writing because I don’t know what else to do. I might already have the outline in my head. I might have gone over that outline obsessively already. But I still write it down, maybe more than once, as if I’m in a holding pattern, and then it just feels like treading water.  In a way, it is like a writing exercise I used to do, coming up with arbitrary lists of specific things. But it is also very different from those lists. Rather than racing from plot point to plot point., those lists try to get me to think about very specific details or to think about words I don’t often use. Red things; things that start with the letter V. More particularly (while still being quite broad), Ray Bradbury recommended making lists of nouns as a way to jog creativity. He wrote, “Make  a list of 10 things you hate and tear them down in a short story. Make a list of 10 things you love and celebrate them. When I wrote Fahrenheit 451 I hated book burners and I loved libraries. So there you are.” Such sound advice, for not only finding ways into writing, but writing with passion.

Back in September, as Rosh Hoshanah approached and I thought about all the oncoming holidays (hello, Thanksgiving-Hanukkah merger), I thought it would be fun to just write a list of all the dishes my grandparents, great aunts, etc. were known for. I invited M. to add to that list.  This got me thinking about how many stories might be in each these specific dishes as well, and how revisiting memories is another way to refill the well.

Here’s that dish list:

Bubby’s mandelbrot

Grandma’s chopped liver

Aunt Shirley’s jello molds

Aunt Ellen’s meatballs in a sweet tomato sauce

Aunt Myra’s chicken schnitzel

Grandpa’s sarmale (large and loose and juicy)

Eva’s matzo balls (dense as bricks)

Aunt Shirley’s brisket

Mom’s meatloaf

Grandpa’s meat pies

Bubby’s Swedish meatballs

Grandpa’s cheese pies

Bubby’s matzo balls (large and fluffy)

Aunt Myra’s walnut cake

Mami’s salade de boef

Grandma’s apples and rice

Grandma’s salade de boef

Eva’s fish soup

Eva’s salade de boef

Aunt Myra’s trifle

Eva’s sarmale (small and tight and smoky)

Grandpa’s fried kippers and onions

Grandma’s upside down cakes  (fruity and light)

Eva’s plum dumplings

Grandma’s plum dumplings

Mr. C’s plum dumplings

Everybody’s plum dumplings

What do you do in your fallow periods? How do you get yourself ready for big creative projects?

Related posts:

1. Background Reading for a Novel-in-Progress

2. Parking Signs to Power Lines

3. Writing from Art

Found Stories

5 Sep

I’m looking forward to teaching Found Stories, a one-day class at Hugo House this October 27 aimed at generating new fiction using found objects. There will be some very essential and very fun pre-class homework: I’m asking students to bring in objects that they find – post-it notes, mittens, music boxes – anything that will be helpful in generating stories, which, really, could be anything. I’ll be bringing in a few of my own artifacts, and until class, I’m also keeping an eye out for goodies left on sidewalks, yard sales, and the like. But I’m really curious about what else people will bring. What stories catch your eye when you see something left behind – discarded or forgotten?

In the meantime, here’s a great story Andrei Codrescu told on NPR today about two items he found while moving: a box of chocolates wrapped in miniature covers of one of his poetry books and a bag of petrified pretzels. And here’s a bit about Joseph Cornell, an artist I’ve been slowly reading up on who used found objects in his dreamy work .

Writing Nonfiction to Think Through Fiction

27 Jul

One of my former professors from UW, Shawn Wong, advised us to write essays on topics related to our fiction projects whenever we felt stuck. After working through many drafts of my first novel, I’ve come to really appreciate this advice. Not only does it give you a new angle on your material, enabling a return to the fiction with fresh eyes, but it can also build your confidence about the research you’d done so far and raise new questions that enrich your understanding of your project. Writing essays can also make it easier to talk about your project with authority and maybe answer that dreaded question, “So, what is your novel about?” with less trepidation.

Earlier this month, my friend SK invited me to speak to the creative writing classes held at UW’s Robinson Center Summer College about travelling to Argentina to research my novel. Though my novel is written for an adult audience, the students in these classes are 5th and 6th graders. It was an enjoyable problem thinking about this different audience and really fun to just address the hands on, primary research I did: walking down Buenos Aires’s wide boulevards and narrow alleyways,trying to get a whiff of the city’s unique scent (note to self: “city scents” as future post), talking to locals who’d lived through the period I was writing about (1978), and uh, gorging myself on dulce de leche. The students had a lot of awesome, thoughtful questions, like what point of view did you write in, did you ever want to give up in the years that you worked on it, did you ever get stuck and what did you do to get unstuck?

Around the same time that I was preparing this talk, I was also working on a short essay for a website called Airplane Reading, which collects “storytelling that can animate, reflect on, and rejuvenate the experience of flight.” This essay, “Mapping Imagination,” gets at some the anxieties I struggled with in writing and researching the novel and is featured there this week. Having worked on both a short talk and short essay, I’m feeling ready again to continue with all the work that goes into getting the novel out into the world.

SK delivered a stack of thank you cards from her students a week after my talk. Some of the details they remembered from the talk and included in their cards were kind of incredible. One student wrote, “P.S. I love food too,” which made me plotz, one student made the card in the form of a paper fortune teller (I learned from it that I will write 1000 more short stories in my lifetime), and two students made an elaborate card in which the Argentine flag opened to a diptych with their messages. It really made my week.

Filtering

8 Dec

Last week, I finished a fourth draft of my novel (whew!). One thing I tried to excise was filtering. I’d used “look” about 178 times in about 65k words (thanks Find All function). This was not to my loving. Verb choice aside, as John Gardner notes in The Art of Fiction and as Janet Burroway points out in Writing Fiction, filtering is an unnecessary and common mistake. Phrases like “she noticed”, “she saw”, “she looked at”, or “she remembered” needlessly take readers one step away from the story rather than letting them inhabit the story and experience it with or through the characters. Now, the act of seeing is important in my novel, but I definitely didn’t need to let filtering phrases run rampant in the manuscript. Combing through the draft, I found instances in which removing the offending filter helped me expand and deepen imagery and sensory detail. That isn’t to say you can never ever use those verbs (that’s silly). But you’ll want to ask yourself if you really need to.

p.s. Readers, out in the ether or down the street, what do you think of bolded text in blog posts? This is my second such use. Helpful?  Unnecessary?

Degenerate Art

19 Jun

Now that I’ve graduated from the MFA (hooray!), I had time this month to catch two exhibits just before they closed. Today, M. made sure I did not miss the Degenerate Art Ensemble at the Frye Art Museum. Metamorphosis and fairy tale play a large role in their work, which is great fuel for my own writing. One installation drew upon Little Red Riding Hood: an enormous fabric statue of Little Red lifting up her hoop skirt formed a stage for projections and videos. Light from the projections shined through her skirt. The concept reminded me of the Anna’s womb-like skirts in The Tin Drum. The video’s dark playfulness and source material also brought me right back to Angela Carter’s various takes on Little Red and werewolves, the subject of my MFA essay, along with Ovid’s tale of Lycaon. (Wolves do seem to keep reappearing now, wherever I go. In Blind Assassin, my first delicious summer read, a character says, “All stories are about wolves.” And there’s also a new exhibit on wolves at the Burke that I should eventually see.)

Another favorite piece was a quiet video of the Slug Princess, in a yellow knit, slightly bulbous costume with a long shimmery trail, dancing among wisps of grayish-green crackling grass and gobbling cabbages. The actual costume on display immediately reminded me of Nick Cave’s sound suits, which I first encountered in the SAM’s permanent collection when M. and I moved here two years ago. There’s something about those sound suits that just make me go: Yes, yes that is completely right. So I was a happy camper taking my folks to the SAM exhibit when they came to town for graduation. One sound suit that stays with me is one made of vintage metal spinning tops – such playful armor! But all the brightly colored knit suits seemed like more accommodating protection.

Interni

30 May

Last Monday my father took me to some design parties in Williamsburg as a part of the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) and follow up to his trip to i Salone del Mobile di Milano. We parked on N.6th and Kent Avenue; traipsed over potholes and broken glass, passed empty riverside lots to look at the yellow-dotted scrapers against the red-purple sky, and listened to corrugated metal fences whine in the wind.

I complained of the cold so back we went and started at Fresh Kills where we drank Perroni and wiggled past clumps of hipsters to look at the ice-sculpture arm chair (cleverly drained by tubing snaked into a nearby grate in the floor) and a linen-covered Taschen tome on anatomy and surgery (I’m guessing its about $500 and I’m hoping someone will save up and buy it for my quarter-century birthday—only 9 months away!). My father touched every surface of every interesting piece of furniture: marble coffee tables with geometric inlays, dangling lamps of translucent glass. Fresh Kills was small, crowded, and not on his agenda. He was eager to move on, so we chugged the cold beer, eyeing the crowd (shaven heads and circus skirts with potato-sack pockets, dreads of all varieties, people really into design, people really into being into design). And out we went.

At HauteGREEN, my father marveled at the space. This was a workshop, he kept saying. I was here two days ago. Where are the saws? Where are the forklifts? It had become a hip party space, white-walled and minimally filled with items of green design: corrugated cardboard recliners, cork arm chairs, used tea bag wall hangings, book cases made of books. He wiggled the cork and the cardboard furniture, assessing comfort level. He ran his hand along bamboo plywood—“this is nice”. A tactile playground for an artist/craftsman.

From there to a boutique of Dutch and Finnish products. He was disappointed at the lack of Dutch beer.

“More Perroni?” he offered. “Shame on me, feeding my daughter a liquid dinner.”

We could hear the strange ululations of Finnish schmoozing. He gave the glass top of a coffee table on upturned skateboards a twirl. I pointed to an arachnid chandalier, made of black desktop lamps and he shrugged.

“That’s easy and cheap,” he said.

Next to the “big party” for Core77, at a large tapas/mezze restaurant next to empty warehouses, where men in amorphous gray felt costumes gave us 3D glasses. The crowd inside was an immovable blob so we looked a bit at the vibrant photos on the walls nearby (pink pigs with strangely textured skin, almost shingled), looked a bit at the pretty people, and left.

I was ready to call it a night, but dad wanted to hit one more spot. We went to the Altoids Living Space, ducked under film crews recording hipsters in linen cowboy shirts murmuring about gentrification, were disappointed by the cash bar, and stuffed our pockets with free tins of altoids.

“Licorice?” my dad offered. I crinkled my nose. “It’s good for you,” he admonished, before putting the black tin in his brimming pocket. We shuffled back to the car, mints clinking with our steps.

Fiber

23 Apr

My good friend Eric just started a knitting blog, recording progress and product of various projects. Crafts like knitting are so much warmer and fuzzier than paintings and sculptures that you can’t touch. Partake in the warmth.

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