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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.

5StarDiveBar

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!

“How to Finish a Novel in Only 15 Years” in The Nervous Breakdown

8 Jan

Wassily Kandinski [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wassily Kandinski [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I am pleased with how fitting it is to have an essay called “How to Finish a Novel in Only 15 Years” in The Nervous Breakdown today. Here’s how it begins:

1.  Choose a horrific moment in history you know little about, in a country, Argentina, you know little about, but which seems to have troubling similarities to the here and now. Research for years. Images from the Dirty War sear into your mind.

continue reading

In other news, I made a handy-dandy card with all of my upcoming out-of-Seattle readings (as always everything is on my appearances page).

Anca L. Szilágyi on Tour for Daughters of the Air

Huzzah!

Monkeybicyle’s If My Book

12 Dec

I’ve written an If My Book column for Monkeybicycle, wherein I compare Daughters of the Air to weird things. Here’s how it begins:

If Daughters of the Air were fruit it would be blood orange and pupunha.

If Daughters of the Air were cheese it would be Roquefort. Also: Kraft saved from a dumpster.

Continue reading

Brooklyn Book Festival 2017

22 Sep
IMG_3216

From a mural in Coney Island

Last week I went home for the Brooklyn Book Festival and it was so lovely! Tuesday night, my parents took Michael and me to Malachy McCourt’s event at Greenwood Cemetery for his new humorous book Death Need Not Be Fatal. I love that the cemetery is also a literary venue with a club called the Death Café; the coordinator promises “the history of cremation has a few laughs.” Perhaps my favorite (non-funny) thing McCourt said is this, regarding his atheism:  the conception of hell is “ecclesiastical terror. I don’t want to hang out with the people who invented that.”

We also went to the Whitney Museum to see Alexander Calder‘s refurbished, motor-driven mobiles and “An Incomplete History of Protest,” an inspiring exhibit tackling art as protest from the 1940s to the present. The views from the Whitney are fantastic. It’s hard not to fall in love with New York over and over again.

On Friday, I took Amanda Thomas of Lanternfish Press on an instagram tour of Coney Island, one of the settings of Daughters of the Air (my first novel, formerly known on this blog as Dirty and releasing December 5!). Sunday was the big day for the book festival, and I was so happy to meet readers excited about weird fiction! Then that afternoon I took LFP’s publicist Feliza Casano on an instagram tour of Gowanus, another major setting of Daughters of the Air. Check out LFP’s blog post on the book festival here. I’ve included a few highlights highlights from Coney Island, Gowanus, and the festival right here:

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Stay tuned for more book news next week! And if you’d like to get that news right in your in-box, I’ve got a short and sweet monthly newsletter you can sign up for here.

A Humble Food Guide to #AWP16 in Los Angeles

20 Mar
The Last Bookstore

The Last Bookstore. Photo by Michael Kent.

Caveat # 1: I am an L.A. ingenue!

Caveat #2: I’m not even going to AWP this year!

But…I happen to be here right now, on a writing retreat while M takes a class for work, and I so enjoyed writing my little food guide to Seattle for the 2014 AWP, I thought I’d give this another spin, albeit with outsider humility.

I write to you from the Los Angeles Public Library cafe, which offers a Panda Express, TCBY, and a vendor called Food 630 which is closed and obscured by some potted plants. The scent of orange chicken is bringing me right back to my teenage field trips to the Staten Island Mall. Not incidentally, the downtown library has been a great place to hunker down and work. Free WiFi is not as ubiquitous here as in Seattle, but at the LAPL, the world is your oyster. I love libraries.

But,  I digress. Where do you eat? If you’re like me, downtown and car averse, there are several great options.

For breakfast, I cannot quit Pitchoun, a French bakery that will surely kill me. So far, I’ve enjoyed a plain brioche sprinkled with otherworldly-large crystals of sugar; a Kouign-Amann, more luscious than a croissant and oozing with syrup; a banana chocolate chip muffin, because, you know, it had some fruit on it; a pain au chocolat; and an almond croissant. Opt for the Kouign-Amann. It’s special.

As a New York transplant, I was very pleased to find Wexler’s Deli in the Grand Central Market.They smoke their own lox and pastrami masterfully. Their bagel is crunchier and less dense than a New York bagel, but it maintains a chewiness that saves it from being round bread with a hole in it. I did wonder whether there is an L.A.-style bagel, distinct from the holy New York and Montreal varieties. Indeed, this L.A. Weekly article confirms. If I were to return, I’d opt for corned beef on rye with a schmear of mustard and a pickle, which, I suspect, would hit a spot the bagel just so slightly missed. If deli food is not your thing, there are a bajillion other vendors at the market hawking foods of all kinds.

Wexler's

Photo by Michael Kent.

Chelsea Kurnick introduced M & me to B.S. Taqueria, the casual sister to fancy pants Broken Spanish. The lemon-pepper chicken skin chicharrones were tasty, and I would venture to say you should go there just for the outstanding rice & beans, flavorful with fresno chilis & cotija & delightfully crunchy thanks to rice being toasted. I enjoyed my tongue tacos, but next time I’d try the clam and lardo. (The Duritos, alas, were much too spicy for me.)

An easy Metro ride up into Hollywood brought M & I up to the old-school gem Musso & Frank, which is not cheap but not as expensive as I’d feared. An elderly barkeep in a red jacket made me a $10 gin martini, with a carafe of excess drink thoughtfully stowed in a little bucket of ice. The clams & linguine dish was well worth the $22 price tag and a side creamed spinach brought me right back to 1987.

Thanks to Kima Jones, I did eat *some* fresh vegetables this week at Bäco Mercat: deeply satisfying “caesar” brussels sprouts and a delightful sugar snap pea & pear salad. Kima urged me to dig deep into the salad, lest I miss out on the heavenly layer of burrata at the bottom. Seattleites will also kvell at the bicycle-powered ice cream parlor, Peddler’s Creamery.

We ventured up to Mohawk Bend in Silver Lake, a $5 shared uber ride, for beer,  buffalo cauliflower, and a garlicky white mushroom pizza that was very good. This spot is great for vegans; everything on the menu is vegan unless otherwise indicated.

For a down to earth meal close to the convention center, check out The Original Pantry Cafe, a 24-hour cash-only diner established in 1924. My dad has been going there every year for the last 30 years, “a good meat and potatoes” place. I had Portuguese sausage & eggs, incredibly savory and rich,  which plunged me into a pleasant food coma.

For an entirely different experience, and a good escape from the conference, take the Expo Line to Culver City for the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Fabulists will love the exhibits on old superstitions, pseudo-science, and other tantalizing mysteries. (There’s a whole room dedicated to Soviet space dogs!) The rooftop garden is a magical oasis, where you’ll be offered tea out of a samovar, doves flutter under billowing awnings, fountains burble, and an abundance of ferns, palms, and birds of paradise will sooth your overtaxed eyes. Many thanks to Sean Michaels for the stellar suggestion.

That’s all kids. Play safe. Eat well. While you’re at the conference I’ll just be up here in Seattle sitting in the rain, munching on kale.

 

Titles of Novels I’ll Probably Never Write

8 Jun

I used to strong-arm my undergraduate students into thinking more about titles – not because I’m one for strong-arming, but because sometimes titles are a last minute concern, whereas I believe they’re essential to the writing process. It was important for expository writing students to focus their essays through thinking of apt titles, and it was important for fiction students to think about how a title can add sharpness and/or layers of meaning to a story. Donald Murray, a big teaching-of-writing guy, used to generate about 150 titles per piece. He allowed himself to be clumsy and awkward in order to find what was precise and just right. Whenever I told my students this, they would grip their notebooks in apprehension until I’d say, “we’re not going to generate 150 titles today, but we are going to generate 20.” They’d sigh with relief, then get antsy by the tenth prompt. Some were eager to share new titles at the end and others said, with arms crossed over their chests or with a twinkle in their eye, “My original title is still better.” In any case, keeping a list of titles to potentially write to, even if I never write the piece, is something I enjoy doing and find quite useful. That said, lately I’ve been collecting imaginary titles for novels that, in all likelihood, I won’t write. (I’m keeping titles of actual works-in-progress close to my chest for now.) Here are the imaginary titles:

The Sex Lives of Traffic Engineers

Young Jewish Men Arguing in Diners

The Sweat Pickle

The Fishmonger’s Uncle’s Tax Accountant

Hard Drinking Elsewhere

The Ghost of Obligation

The Ineffectual Perfectionist

People Alone in Cars Reading E-mail

Now you try!

Overheard in the Ladies Room at Pacific Place

2 Jan

Over the holidays, while waiting for the restroom, I overheard this exchange and have been so enraptured by it (read to the end to feel the rapture) that I’m convinced at least one person, if not multiple, could write a short story, if not a novel, from this tender seedling. Please do share if you do!

“Mommy, it’s not coming out.”

“Well,” says the mother, from a neighboring stall, “you don’t want to eat your fruits and veggies. That’s what happens when you don’t eat your fruits and veggies.” Time passes. “Are you ready? Do you want my help?”

“Ok.”

The mother flushes, exits her stall. “Get out,” she says, “so I can come in.” A big brother, about seven or eight but large for his age, comes out, smirking. A gold earring, maybe it’s a stick-on, gleams in one of his lobes. The mother enters the stall. Clucks her tongue. “Why isn’t there a toilet seat cover?” She sighs, loudly.

“Mommy,” the big brother says, face near the closing door, eyes half-closed and dreamy, “I love you.”

If you liked that, here’s another inter-generational overheard, in Florence: https://ancawrites.com/2006/03/30/bargello/

The Winter Garden

23 Dec

Photo by George Szilagyi

I’m teaching myself about plants. Last week, my dad and I traipsed through the Washington Arboretum, in search of its Winter Garden. It is not a garden to rush through – anything faster than a stroll and you’ll miss it. The colors are not flashy –  no effusive bursts of pink, no huge swaths of dizzying color. But if you stand still a minute, and take a look around, you notice a few things. Paperbark Maples, losing swaths of bark, are silky brown on the outside and a luminous golden-yam on the inside. I resisted the urge to tear off a sheet. Shrubby dogwoods have slender, fiery tips, a lovely crimson in the blue hours. And, odd snowberries, Symphoricarpos albus, are white puffs afloat gray bushes. I want to say they look like yogurt-covered raisins, but that description, though accurate, seems lacking in intrigue. They’re also called ghostberries, as the waxy, spongy puffs last throughout the winter, munched on by quail and grouse and other fauna of that ilk. Some sources claim the berries (also called drupes – neat word!) are toxic to humans causing that standard nausea-dizziness-vomiting thing, while others claim that poultices of snowberries might have certain curative properties, perhaps for sore eyes. I think I’m going to stick to just admiring their small, bulbous presence, among the other odd berries of a Northwest winter, with their deep reds and juicy blue-blacks, along with the bright, rosy-orange pomes of crabapples.

Incidentally, if anyone talented at dress-making wants to make me a sheath dress inspired by the bark in the photo above, I’d be a happy little elf.

Fun for Grammar Nerds

30 Apr

In my last graduate prose workshop, we’re doing some hardcore sentence diagramming. As I procrastinate my next and last set – diagramming all sorts of slippery complex sentences – I’ve looked back to our first more innocent-seeming exercise, one that is great fun, and comes from Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. Take a three or four word sentence and expand it to at least fifty words while maintaining the original structure of doer-doing-done to. Then analyze the relationships between modifiers.

Here’s the original sentence we used: Carly baked the cake.

Here’s my sentence:

Knowing how to mesmerize with a flick of the whisk, Carly (that impudent strumpet), deftly and deliriously and, above all, viciously baked the illicit cake of mango and plum and angel food and acid on which we unknowingly gorged ourselves (foolish gluttons) and by which we lost at least one day. 

Give it a try – see what you come up with!

***

Here’s my analysis (the levels are somewhat indistinct as my days of doing sentence trees are long ago and far away):

Level 1

“Knowing how to mesmerize with a flick of the whisk” and “(that impudent strumpet)” modify Carly, extending her role in the sentence. The first phrase adds to her agency, putting special emphasis on the knowledge of her abilities in the kitchen while the parenthetical comments on her more nefarious intentions – all the while keeping a lighter tone (“impudent strumpet” is not to be taken too seriously) so that it isn’t yet clear whether what she has done is so bad.  “Deftly and deliriously and …viciously” define how Carly baked; these adjectives extend the idea of her skill as well as give a sense of her state of mind and manner of action; the last adjective continues the thread of blame begun with “impudent strumpet”.  “Illicit…mango and plum and angel food and acid” define the type of cake and extend the idea of something nefarious, with the final noun, acid, completing the idea. The last two clauses (“on which…” and “by which…”) also modify the illicit cake by showing its effect on the first person plural narrator and showing how Carly tricked them rather unethically.

Level 2 (modifiers of the modifiers)

“impudent” modifies strumpet, highlighting the blame, but not quite condemning her yet.

“above all” modifies viciously, highlights the blame more intentionally.

“unknowingly” modifies gorged, mitigating the speakers’ involvement in the cake-eating.

“(foolish gluttons)” modifies ourselves, defining the role of the speaker in the sentence.

“at least one” modifies day, extending the idea of the speaker not knowing – the exact loss of time is unclear (which perhaps puts into question what exactly happened).

Level 3 (last layer of modifiers – I am less sure of this layer)

“of the whisk” modifies flick, illustrating just what the flirtatious action is – how it is her kitchen tool that is an extension of her conniving hand.

”to mesmerize” modifies how, showing what Carly action knows.

“foolish” modifies gluttons, extending the idea that the gorging was ignorant of the illicitness of the cake.

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