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Notes from #AWP18, Part C: “The Worst Writing Advice I Ever Got,” plus book fair porn (e.g. the requisite book haul on a hotel bed shot)

17 Mar

bookhaulIn my last post I promised blood. Well, I’ll just say I slid my boot off Friday night and it was like I was one of Cinderella’s stepsisters. I’m still limping. On to day 3!

What is a better breakfast than a leftover Cuban sandwich? Leftover fried oysters. Just kidding! The Cuban sandwich was much better. Day 3 was the best because Michael got a one-day pass and we got to roam the book fair together.

“The Worst Writing Advice I Ever Got” is an irresistible title, so of course we wrenched ourselves away from the book fair for it. Here, without narrative, a fun grab-bag of quotes:

  • “Creative writing aphorisms are as useful as Dr. Phil.” –Chris Abani
  • “Your book won’t save you. It’s just something you’re going to do because you’re nuts.” –Min Jin Lee
  • “How do I handle writer’s block? I don’t write.” –Ada Limón

I appreciated Limón’s story of navigating two groups of people: those who roll their eyes at “abuelita poems” and those who say, “where’s your abuelita poem?” And Melissa Stein‘s remark that dread may be a sign that advice you’ve been given may not be for you, anxiety might mean it’s worth exploring the challenge, and excitement is obviously a good sign. Abani noted that “Craft advice is only important if you’re asking questions. What are you trying to do?”

We stuck around for a reading and conversation between Min Jin Lee and Sigrid Nunez. Nunez on writing about sex: “The vocabulary is not there. It’s either coy, clinical, or filthy, none of which do justice to human sexuality.” At the book signing, Lee called Michael and me adorable. So that happened.

My attention span went out the door by mid-afternoon, so it was off to the hotel bar for wine and fried calamari! Naturally, someone in panda suit wandered in. panda

Next year in Portland! Maybe Seattleites can get some party buses organized…

Notes From #AWP18, Part 2: “Sound Makes Sense: Reading the Lyric Sentence” and Various & Sundries (Gonzo Links Edition)

16 Mar
Sunrise view from my hotel room

Sunrise from our hotel room

The Friday of AWP is always the best day. The nervous energy of Thursday has dissipated, and the inevitable Saturday flu epidemic has not yet emerged. I woke early to respond to student stories and breakfasted on a leftover Cuban sandwich, wondering if it would make me barf later. Reader, it did not! A fortifying start.

Alan Sincic, the fantastic Orlando-based writer who was The Furnace’s Writer-in-Residence, was on a 9 am panel on the lyric sentence. I’m a fan of Sincic’s prose *and* mad presentation skills, so the early start was well worth it. The moderator, Pearl Abraham, kicked off the discussion with this advice: “If the voice doesn’t work, write better sentences.” 

Then Sincic woke up the crowd with a call-and-response activity, that gradually built up to us chanting together: “I am an individual and will not surrender my voice to the crowd.” He said, “A sentence is less like the beam of a house and more like the branch of a tree,” that a sentence has ghost limbs lost in the editing process. He proceeded to take apart this Mark Twain sentence, examining each word choice and its placement as a way of generating suspense and delight: “Is a tail absolutely necessary to the comfort and convenience of a dog?”

Baylea Jones analyzed a sentence from Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, graphing sounds and letters, including patterns of consonant use, and internal rhymes: “Black walnut trees dropped their green-black fuzzy bulbs on Aunt Ruth’s matted lawn, past where their knotty roots rose up out of the ground like the elbows and knees of dirty children suntanned dark and covered with scars.” Wow! I had fun retyping that.

AuthorSigningI ducked out early to get to my book signing at the Lanternfish Press table, where I got to hang out with my editor Christine Neulieb and publisher Amanda Thomas,  and connect with new readers and old friends, including Julia Mascoli, who was in my Tin House workshop in 2013 and who is Deputy Director of Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop doing great work with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people in Washington, D.C. (Seattle-area folks, you can donate books to prisons and other under-served communities via Seattle7Writers Pocket Libraries program.)

Later, I chilled at the Cambridge Writer’s Workshop table, celebrating the release of CREDO: An Anthology of Manifestos and Sourcebook for Creative Writing, which includes my “Summer-Inspired Writing Prompts.” Co-editor Rita Banerjee was there with her mythic poetry collection Echo in Four Beats, as was Maya Sonenberg, whose new chapbook After the Death of Shostakovich Père is out from PANK Books.

That night, the celebration continued at the Helen Gordon Davis Center for Women, a beautiful old mansion a mile away from the convention center. There were many, many readings. One was from Women in the Literary Landscape; crowds whooped in appreciation for Anne Bradstreet, Virginia Kirkus, and the biographer of Eleanor Roosevelt. (I am a rube for not remember which biographer was mentioned, so here are five of them!)  Nell Painter, author of A History of White People, read from her forthcoming memoir Old in Art School, Diana Norma Szokolayi read her poem “Sarajevo,” Sonenberg read an anti-plot manifesto, and I read an excerpt from Daughters of the Air in which Pluta has committed arson in Brooklyn and found refuge in an abandoned Times Square theater. Fun! There is so much more to write…! I’ll wrap things up in one more post. Sneak preview: there will be blood.

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Reading at Strange Theater: A Menagerie of Fabulists. Photo courtesy of Daniel A. Hoyt. I swear, there were more people here. We agreed the line up was so good we’ll do it again in Portland, but weirder!

Notes from #AWP18, Part I: “Difficult History,” a panel on Jewish fiction

15 Mar
Flowers in Delray Beach

Flowers in Delray Beach

I’m back home after a whirlwind book tour that ended with AWP in Tampa. Michael and I drove up from Delray Beach through the Everglades, hoping to spot alligators, and though there were none, pelicans abounded.

We arrived in time for me to catch one panel Thursday afternoon, “Difficult History: Jewish Fiction in the Alt-Right World,” which began with brief readings from each panelist. Emily Barton read from The Book of Esther, an alternate history in which a Turkic Jewish warrior state that disappeared in the Middle Ages existed into August 1942. Simone Zelitch read from her novel Judenstaat, another alternate history, this one set in 1980 in the Jewish sovereign state established in the province of Saxony in 1948. Amy Brill read from Hotel Havana, about Jewish refugees in Havana in the 1930s and ’40s, highlighting the fresh pain German Jews felt compared to Polish Jews, since Polish Jews had always been considered Jewish rather than Polish, whereas German Jews had thought of themselves as German. And Irina Reyn read from a work-in-progress ending on this note: “A Russian woman doesn’t wait. A Russian woman acts.”

On the question of what is Jewish fiction, Zelitch quoted a character of hers: “We don’t bow down. We cross borders. We remember.” Reyn recalled her unhappy Jewish day school experience as a Russian immigrant who never felt she belonged (I totally related to this, being neither a “real” American or Israeli at my elementary school); she said, “Jewish fiction is constant negotiation: where do you belong?”

Brill remarked that as a reform Jew who went to Sunday school and never really understood her bat mitzvah asked: how do you handle writing a character that is either less than or more than your own religiosity? Barton said that for The Book of Esther she generated 90 questions and found a rabbi willing to discuss them all with her; then she showed the finished manuscript to another rabbi. She said that after revision and publication she still got things weirdly wrong. Oy! On the question of how much to explicate for the reader, Barton said she wants Christian Americans to know what’s like to be a religious minority: “I looked up pentecost; you can look up havdallah.”

Barton also made a point I feel strongly about (and have written about in Salon and Jewish in Seattle): it is important to revisit history and re-enliven it. Alternate history, she suggested, is one way to get around Holocaust fatigue. Zelitch added, “Judaism has to be more than the Holocaust and Israel,” that we should look to the international Jewish experience and the refugee crisis. Reyn then touched on “diasporic anxiety,” the need to be more Jewish than you really are in order to connect with Jews in a new place (again, something I totally relate to since moving to Seattle from New York, and touched on in an essay for The Rumpus). Zelitch added that today dystopian fiction seems like a cop out and the challenge is to write engaging utopian fiction, that we need to see powerless people taking power and people need to lose themselves in this kind of story. Before opening up the discussion to audience questions, Brill said: “The arc of justice is not necessarily moving on its own. We need to push it.”

It was certainly an invigorating panel! One or two more posts to come…

“Poems That Helped Me Write Novels” on the Submittable Blog & Upcoming Events

27 Feb
Gowanus canal at night.

Tonight at WORD Brooklyn, I’ll read a section of Daughters of the Air set in Gowanus.

It’s my birthday, and I’m home in Brooklyn. Today is full of treats. Mimosas and chocolate croissants with my family (and bagels, but I’ve been gorging on bagels since Saturday and have nearly reached my bagel limit), a stroll by Prospect Park, and a reading from Daughters of the Air at WORD Brooklyn at 7 pm. If you’re in town and free, I hope you’ll come! There will be wine and treats.

Over on the Submittable blog, I have a craft essay on poetry’s effect on my prose. Here’s how it begins:

Poems are tuning forks. When I am lost in the darkness of a novel-in-progress, fumbling through and then and then and then, they key me back into the precise and intimate. They pull me closer to the unknowable.  continue reading

After tonight I have two more stops on my east-of-the-Mississippi tour, in Chicago on Saturday, March 3 at The Book Cellar, with Gint Aras, and then three events at AWP in Tampa: Strange Theater: A Menagerie of Fabulists (Thursday, 3/8, 7 pm); a book signing at Lanternfish Press’s table at the book fair Friday (3/9) from 10-11:30 am; and Spontaneous Reading Party by C & R Press Friday (3/9, 7 pm), celebrating the release of CREDO: An Anthology of Manifestos & Source Book For Creative Writing. Then I’m back on the West Coast for the next little while, with a full docket of events you can see here. Huzzah!

Guest Post at Lisa Romeo Writes: “Whatever Works: Looking at Visual Art to Write Inspired Prose”

7 Feb
Self_Portrait_with_Seven_Fingers (1)

Marc Chagall, Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers

Paintings helped me grope through the dark of my first draft of Daughters of the Air. I wrote a guest blog post about that process on Lisa Romeo’s blog. Here’s how the piece begins:

When I was just starting to write seriously, I fetishized notebooks—and, like an eight-year-old—stickers.  I preferred black, hard-backed notebooks with graph paper that forced my writing into small, neat boxes.  My favorite treat was popping into a stationary store in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, to buy a cheap book of Dover Art Stickers depicting famous paintings by Michelangelo, Kahlo, Goya, and the like. I was trying to write the first draft of my first novel, Daughters of the Air, using Hemingway’s supposed model of 300 words a day, no more, no less, stopping mid-sentence and all that jazz.

continue reading

Years later, still enraptured with the process, I ended up teaching several classes on writing from art for Hugo House at the Henry Art Gallery (you can see my students’ work alongside the art that inspired them in these e-booklets the Henry made here and here) as well as several blog posts for Ploughshares, including this one on writing from abstract art. And, my next novel features an artist. And, many of my essays engage with art in one way or another, like this one on Goya, in the Los Angeles Review of Books. All this writing about writing—it’s time for me to get back to a gallery and refill the well!

DAUGHTERS OF THE AIR Playlist on Largehearted Boy

5 Feb

Published by Lanternfish PressIt was super fun creating a playlist of music related to Daughters of the Air for David Gutowski’s literature and music blog, Largehearted Boy. I’ve included music from the time of the book, the late ’70s and early ’80s, as well as music that fits the atmosphere (dark, weird). Grace Jones and Klaus Nomi and Arcade Fire and Antony and the Johnsons and more! Have a listen right here.

“Scrolling Through the Feed” in Cascadia Magazine

30 Jan
Eric Carle's illustration of "Big Klaus, Little Klaus"

Eric Carle’s illustration of “Big Klaus, Little Klaus” in Seven Stories by Hans Christian Andersen has haunted me since childhood. When I imagined the bandits in “Scrolling Through the Feed” doing something nefarious in Interlaken Park, I pictured them in smudgy colors like this.

Over the summer, while immersing myself in Jess Walter’s fiction in preparation for interviewing him in December (you can now watch his Word Works talk on time, and the Q & A,  here on YouTube), I reread his story “Don’t Eat Cat” and felt compelled to write my own zombie story. And, because it’s me, it’s a bit a fairy tale-ish. “Scrolling Through the Feed” went online this morning in Cascadia Magazine, a new publication focusing on the Pacific Northwest, from British Columbia to Oregon. I’m happy there’s a new venue gathering long-form journalism, fiction, and poetry from the region, and one that that thinks beyond our borders.

It feels somehow appropriate for the story to go up on the same day of the State of the Union, which I will not watch. Thankfully, I’m reading tonight at the Literary Happy Hour at Capitol Cider, alongside Bill Carty, Jarret Middleton, and Jekeva Philips, hosted by Josh Potter. It runs from 5-7 pm. In line with their “drafts and drafts” theme, I’ll give a micro-craft talk on one of the earliest inspirations for Daughters of the Air.  Speaking of which, this is your last chance (ever?) to enter to win a free copy of the novel on Goodreads.  Go get it!

Upcoming Classes in Portland and Chicago: Writing Contemporary Fairy Tales

28 Jan
Canon Beach, OR

Cannon Beach, OR is definitely high on my list of fairy tale-ish places.

Mid-February to mid-March, I’ll be zipping around the country reading from and yapping about Daughters of the Air (yay!). While I’m at it, I’ll be teaching a couple one-day classes on one of my favorite topics: writing contemporary fairy tales. In both classes we’ll short-short stories by masters of the form, Angela Carter and Kate Bernheimer, and write our own retellings and original tales.

In Portland:

Sunday, February 18, 10 am-2 pm at Literary Arts. Bring lunch! Register here.

(N.B.  I’ll be reading at Powell’s City of Books the next day, February 19 at 7:30 pm, in conversation with another fan of fairy tales, Susan DeFreitas, author of Hot Season. Here is a conversation between us on fairy tales on the Powell’s blog.)

In Chicago:

Monday, March 5, 6:30-9 pm at StoryStudio Chicago. Register here.

(And my Chicago reading will be at The Book Cellar on Saturday, March 3 at 6 pm, with Gint Aras, author of The Fugue.)




All of my upcoming readings are here.

All of my upcoming classes are here.

Want short & sweet once-a-month updates on readings, classes, publications, and bits on art, writing, food, and cities? Subscribe to my newsletter here. It’s like this blog but less often and right in your inbox! You can check out previous newsletters here. Past highlights include pictures of ponies, fruit pyramids, giants, and odd winged creatures.

Q & A on the Powell’s Blog: “Elastic Realism and Political Fiction; or, A Conversation Between Anca Szilágyi and Susan DeFreitas”

26 Jan
Bookcase brimming with Murakami, Calvino, Woolf, and more...

Not ashamed to admit I have hugged this book case…more than once.

Over on the Powell’s blog, I spoke with Susan DeFreitas, author of Hot Season, about blurring genre boundaries, political fiction, and fairy tales. In the process we touched on a slew of authors: Clarice Lispector, Nikolai Gogol, Kate Bernheimer, Lydia Millet, Denis Johnson, Ralph Ellison, Günter Grass, Angela Carter, Maya Sonenberg, Robert Coover, Rikki Ducornet, Lily Hoang, Anne Carson, and Haruki Murakami. Whew! Makes me want hug a bookcase. You can read the Q & A here.

If you’re in the Portland area, I hope you’ll join us at Powell’s City of Books on Monday, February 19 at 7:30 pm. (And if you can’t make it, you can still preorder a signed edition here to be shipped to you!)

DAUGHTERS OF THE AIR Compared to Le Guin in Locus Magazine

15 Jan

Locus-Jan18

The January issue of Locus Magazine includes a lovely review of Daughters of the Air.  Here is an excerpt:

Only Le Guin bothers to write coming-of-age stories with such attention to each word… Daughters of the Air is well worth reading. Beyond its singular blend of myth and magic, its potent and poetic language announces a worthy new voice in, if I can call it this, the literature of the melting pot. Szilágyi is writing from the center of multiple cultural Venn diagrams, about historical and emotional topics more readers need to explore.

-Katherine Coldiron

You can buy the issue here.

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