Category: workshopping

I love you but I do not want to write about you unnecessarily.

I hate it when I am reading an essay and the writer suddenly says she has a husband or fiancé or boyfriend for no real good reason other than she thinks she must. I will be reading some perfectly good essay about stargazing or foreclosures and suddenly know whether the author lives with her boyfriend. She will be working through her thoughts, then bring in his as one line of dialogue or some other form of aside, a throwaway line that does not complicate anything and could just as easily be cut.

Why must women always have to declare they’re female and they’re taken or single, a mother or not a mother? What is that all about? It is not expected that a male writer will say how committed he is to a significant other or if he’s fathered a child, and he really doesn’t have to declare that in the first sentence.

But females still have to reduce themselves to a stereotype. What Golden Girl/Sex in the City/Designing Women/L-Word/Girls/name-a-show-with-a-female-cast character are you? The naïve one? The super-sexed-up one? The too-macho and outspoken one? The sensible one?

What if I am Southern and only occasionally feisty? Or terribly naïve but not at all innocent? What if that isn’t the point and I am not, by nature, a confessionalist?

One of the last essay critiques I got said, “Tell me your sex up front.” I had not thought my sex or gender was important to the question at hand, which is why I had not devoted any space to my anatomy or whether I am sporty or free-spirited, or if I am co-conspirator in some playful, moonly love.
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Real Word

Sex. Copious drinking. Identity crises. Editorial violence. Cult-like inclusivity with charismatic professor-leaders. Emotional highs at public readings and emotional lows during every workshop where your piece comes to the table.

Brendan Lynaugh and I started wondering: what’s keeping the MFA program from becoming a reality TV show?

Just think about it:

Like any good reality TV show, there wouldn’t any guild writers involved, nothing would have to be scripted, and yet writers could be employed–as actors. Also, some actors are creative writers (ahem, Franco).

Poetry could reach a wide, new audience and market, the TV-viewing population. What poet doesn’t drool over the prospect of being on TV?

There’s real, daily drama in MFA programs. Several years ago, UNM’s MFA had a phone sex scandal. A professor and several students began working for the same phone sex company, and even appeared in promotional photos together. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education one graduate student took a job on the phone sex line hoping to make her writing “darker” and “edgier” after complaints from her dominatrix-moonlighting professor that her writing wasn’t either.

Wouldn’t this episode have been better TV than Survivor, Housewives, and Hoarders combined?

We’re talking real drama. And it would be easy.

First we need to recruit a good cast. Brendan developed some roles we would need filled:

1. Young Hemingway: Fiction writer, loves Hemingway (obviously) and Carver and absinthe. Typically male, early twenties, facial hair, hard drinking, hard living, minimalist and minimal actual writing, works best after midnight, moody, has no time for touchy-feely stories.  Doesn’t say much, but what s/he says always sounds more impressive than it is.
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Notes on How to Create the Typical Fiction World

Things to include in next story to make it REAL FICTION:

1. At least one character smoking cigarettes
2. Some form of weed
3. Possibly recreational drug use
4. Main character having massive amounts of sex
5. Infidelity
6. Cancer
7. Eggs
7.5. Egg parties
7.5.1. wtf are egg parties? Read more »

The Church of Creative Writing

I didn’t have a post-MFA slump. Not immediately. I took about two weeks off writing and then began work on a long short story. When that was done, I tackled my novel. I didn’t necessarily write every day but by the November after graduation, the 50,000 words of NaNoWriMo didn’t seem hard to reach. I was unemployed and didn’t have much going on in my life; I had nothing but time.

Then I got into a play. Two plays, actually. At the same time. It turned out that developing two separate characters for the stage drained my creative reservoirs, and so I gave myself a break on the writing front. If it happened, it happened. If not, more time to memorize lines.

The work resumed when the play ended, but with a little hobble. My novel characters seemed distant–I’d forsaken them. I had new ideas about shape and style that required massive rewrites. I spent my writing time producing outlines instead of prose.

We moved. I finally had an office of my own. I had a creative surge and then–I got pregnant. I told myself I’d finish the novel before giving birth, no matter what. Except that didn’t seem feasible. People told me it wasn’t feasible. People smirked. I got depressed, and since I was growing a tadpole inside me, nauseated. I spent a lot of time on the couch with 1930s horror movies and library books, though browsing the stacks always made me dizzy. When I started feeling better, I started hauling my laptop to a local coffee house once a week, hoping the change of scene would magically imbue me with creative drive, but generally ended up having coffee with a friend who was on maternity leave and her cuter than cute baby girl. Okay, so I’d do NaNoWriMo. Except my husband and I bought a house, and the deal closed in November, and we moved, then almost immediately flew to California to spend a week with my family for Thanksgiving, then came home to unpack and host a packed lineup of dinners introducing our friends to our new home. Now I’m out of town, back in Pullman, because my husband’s company wanted him to attend a holiday party this weekend, and why not teach a couple training classes while you’re out here? Next week I’ve got neighbors coming over for cookies and cocoa on Monday (if they got the cute invitations I stuffed in their mailbox and actually feel like meeting us), then on Wednesday we’re hosting a 30-50 guest office party in our new home (for the office where my husband works day to day–tomorrow’s is for his “group” which mainly works from the Pullman office), then both my parents and my in-laws fly in for Christmas, giving us overnight company for a total of seven days, and I’ve got a couple of fairly complicated homemade gifts to finish before they get here. Whew.

I’m sure very few of you have stuck with this post this far, wading through my slough of excuses. Read more »

You Didn’t Write That

Conservative politics and fiction-writing workshops rarely converge, but over at Slate, Rachael Larimore invokes a lesson learned at her writing program to claim it doesn’t matter what Obama meant, when he uttered the infamous, “You didn’t build that,” line.

The most important: “It doesn’t matter what you meant. What matters is what you conveyed.” In the context of class, that meant when we were sharing our work and listening to feedback, we couldn’t butt in and say that we’d meant something else. We needed to take ourselves out of our own head and try to understand what our readers had heard.

It’s a little too easy to point out that Obama was not, in fact, reading a story from his linked collection in an independent bookstore, but rather, giving a political speech to a crowd of supporters. Surely Larimore knows that what works in fiction-writing don’t necessarily apply to rhetoric. At least in theory, readers, whether in a workshop or at home on the couch, come at each story unbiased. In politics, everyone is biased as Larimore herself explains:

I can’t think of a starker difference between the liberal and conservative worldviews than the Life of Julia slide show.  Liberals look at that video and see a woman aided by a social safety net. Conservatives look at it and are creeped out by the fact that liberals think the very-capable-seeming Julia can’t do anything without government help.

Since roughly 96% of Americans have received government benefits, it seems liberals have a view more consistent with reality.  But point being, different people saw the same video and had vastly different reactions. Different people heard Obama’s speech and had different reactions. Read more »

MFA Grads: Was Your MFA Worth It?

Maybe it’s our incessant writing about Beauty (with a capital B) or the fact that we spend most of our time wandering lonely as a cloud, but the MFA-or-not debate tends to lack specifics.

As you can probably tell, I like data, so I want to see if we can rectify this, if only a little. (Dear Math: I was wrong about you!)

So I hereby propose a short survey for MFA-grads. Of course, I’ll keep all personal information anonymous, and once I process the results, I’ll graph them. (As a shout out to our pals at VIDA, I’m thinking pie charts will do the trick.) Of course, as this is a self-selected survey, the data will be skewed somewhat. Only the folks who really care one way or the other will respond, but I’m hoping to get a range of responses nonetheless.

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60 Minutes Can Suck On The Facts, But The Truth of Greg Mortenson’s Memoir’s Beyond The Court’s Jurisdiction


Non-Fiction’s tether to the facts has always been frayed.  And we’re just now getting nervous about it?


A federal judge in Montana has saved the non-fiction writer’s proverbial ass.  (Not really!)

He has, for the foreseeable-future, allowed the authors of memoirs, essays and sundry ‘aboutnesses’ to ostensibly do what novelists and poets do all the time.  That is, tell little fibs.  That is, craft big ones through which we can see, but the gist of which we want to believe so desperately, we pretend there are no holes.  That is, fabricate the truth.  That is, construct a world in which the center may not hold.  That is, present the narrator as the legendary hero he, or heroine she, always imagined him or herself to be.

Yes, we have Sam Haddon to thank for the barrage of mythic forays to come.  The U.S. District Gavel-Swinger has thrown out the suit filed on behalf of a million (alright, four) non-fiction readers, a suit that may have required author, Greg Mortenson, to pay damages to those who understood his Three Cups of Tea bestseller to be entirely factual (and cough up $15 per disillusioned reader), a suit initially brought to bear by another writer, Jon Krakauer in Three Cups of Deceit… (Boo!  Hiss!  What a party-pooper!).

And so, where do we go from here?

I, for one, am not going to take this lying (down).  To my credit I have an entire half of a graduate course with Natalie Kusz, and the topic of embellishing on the events and adventures of our lives has been raised every Tuesday.  Tonight we’ll do it again.   We’ll say that we can’t make stuff up.  But what puts the Creative in the genre of Creative Non-Fiction is how we beautify the gory details of our fragmented days, weeks, months and years.   Then, of course, someone will wrinkle his brow and it will be assumed that in streamlining the crap of our experience we, as writers, have made everything up.  This is as it should be.

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Describe Your Characters! Why Bother?

After astutely pointing out for the fourth straight week that my story or essay neglected to include much physical description of my characters, a member of my writing group asked why exactly I had trouble doing that. I mumbled a joking response about needing to work on it, but not until the drive home did I really start to consider why I shied away from physical description.

It’s not like I’m unaware that description is important. I’m sure every workshop leader has mentioned this fact, along with the apocryphal axiom: use all five sense by the end of the first page.

Over Saturday brunch with my mom, she suggested (in a nice way) it’s because my head is a bit in the clouds. “Like me, you don’t really pay attention to what kind of clothing people wear.”  True enough.

And, if I may play a small violin for myself, I was also classified with a minor learning disability as a teenager: poor visual memory.  So that could be part of it.

But I think the main reason is that when I read, I tend to skim over physical descriptions of characters and instead, form my mental image of each character based on his or her actions, thoughts, speech-patterns, etc, as found in the text.

Then I read this disturbing Jezebel article about kids being upset that the characters in the Hunger Games were correctly cast as dark-skinned. Read more »

An AWP Q&A in 80s Song Titles

Q: What do you have to say about the competitiveness in the writing world today?
A: Welcome to the jungle.

Q: How do I make my cover letter stand out?
A: Don’t be a rainbow in the dark.

Q: What is your revision process like?
A: Roll with the changes. Keep on rolling. Keep on rolling.

Q: How to you maintain a positive atmosphere in a workshop setting?
A: Love is a battlefield.

Q: What character in literature has inspired your work the most?
A: Tom Sawyer.

Q: What kind of work do you publish? What kind of writing are you looking for?
A: I want to know what love is. I want you to show me. Read more »

Steal This Post

I popped into a coffee shop a few nights ago while waiting for my husband to pick me up from rehearsal, and it happened that one of my former creative writing students was leading a writing group. I didn’t recognize him right away. I didn’t notice him at all until, over the general chatter, I heard his deep, distinctive voice. He and his group were discussing the best way to get their stories to each other. Gmail, one group member said, was notorious for stealing content, and email in general lacked security. Someone suggested Facebook, and a discussion about the thieving Mark Zuckerberg ensued. Another suggested exchanging pieces via flash drive, which was quickly vetoed because flash drives could have viruses. They discussed exchanging addresses and using the postal service, but again, there was the concern that their stories might be stolen, plus there was the cost and environmental impact. This led to a general discussion of the problems with paper, and how the chemicals used to treat it are a much greater problem than deforestation, etc (we live near a paper mill here–the smell alone could make one want to go paperless).

Maybe this makes me a jerk, but I chuckled a little at their concerns. They had worried the small issue of exchanging stories into a major problem. And while some of their concerns were valid, I was struck by their copyright paranoia and the fear that their work might be stolen, especially because when their group leader was in my class, every piece he turned in had a giant copyright notice at the top of the page, even after I told him that it was not only unnecessary, but slightly insulting, as it insinuated that he thought his classmates or I might steal his work. I told him, if he was concerned, that he should put his name in the header or footer, by the page number, and that that would suffice. Apparently that didn’t ease his concerns. Read more »

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