Friday, August 29, 2008

Guest Blogger Charlie Jensen: Writing Communities

As our fall workshops are just about to launch, I've been remembering some of my first experiences in situating myself among other writers.

When I was in high school, my English teacher, who really served as my first writing mentor, took me on a field trip with some other students to a writing festival at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, a small satellite of the larger UW system near where I grew up. The campus that day was full of energy and students of all ages. As attendees of the festival, we attended a large assembly about the importance of writing and then each registrant was placed in a critique workshop--my first of this kind but certainly not the last--with an established resident or visiting writer.

Our poems had all been thoughtfully read, and other members of our critique groups were also invited to provide criticism. My poem that first year was typical of what you'd expect from a 14-year-old boy: an extended meditation on relationships and sports, wherein the rules of baseball stood in for the conceit of sexual tension.

While my instructor delicately handled both my adolescent hubris and borderline offensive content with grace and aplomb, it wasn't long before a girl in the audience spoke up to ridicule me and my work. "This is disgusting!" she shouted, a small group of her friends egging her on. "How can you write about sex this way?"

The three girls attending the event from my school were sitting in the workshop with me. They were the kind of kids you didn't mess with--the kinds of girls who knew what various car enginge parts were and what they did, who snuck out to smoke at lunch, whose faces had that teenage scowl--but they liked me. And when the drama started, they fired right back. "Leave him alone!"

The objectioning girl stood up, and then we saw that she was several months pregnant. Her argument made a little more sense then. But things didn't die down and the lobbed jabs from either side grew in intensity and irritation until finally, our workshop leader shut the discussion down and moved on to another piece. But even as we left the room, the girl and her friends shot me looks of death.

I suppose an early introduction to criticism like this steeled me for the years of workshops to come.... And rest assured, they're very rarely this eventful!

Hope to see you at the Center next week.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Cliche: To Be or Not to Be

Writers love using the word “cliché.” We’re all guilty of it. Even now as I’m writing: I sit in a fancy café with movie set lighting, laptop in arm. Truth be told, I feel ridiculous, a bit pretentious even, like I’m working on the great American story. I even wait for someone to interrupt me so I can give them the medusa stare.

So, I thought I’d share a short list of things that writers do that I find to be cliché. Feel free to disagree with me and drop me a line (

Now on with my list, what I hope to revisit in a future post.

It's so cliche for writers to:

-go to coffee shops, meet with other writers and pretend to write.

-cop witty one-liners from family and friends that you plan to use in a story as your own.

-dress in all black.

- bellyache about feeling uninspired.

-write about your family and go on & on as if you were uniquely placed in a dysfunctional family.

-attend a reading simply for the food.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

What Should We Read in High School?

We'll get to the subject of this post in a sec. First, we've got a second entry in our caption contest (scroll down to see the caption, read the comments, and then post your entry!). Our last contest winner, Serena, thinks that Anna's got a great caption. And she does. Let's see how many more we can get. The deadline will be Sept 5th at 5p.m. Which is the night before our Open House. At the Open House, whoever wins the contest gets a free book. Feel free to pass this blog post to your friends.

This past Sunday, local English teacher Nancy Schnog published a terrific article in the Washington Post about how we teach literature to high school students--or, better, how we fail to get them motivated to read. If you haven't already read it, you should. You'll remember, as I did, all those books you were made to read in high school that you didn't want to read. What she advocates in the article is the common sense way of getting students to read.

Often, it's all too easy to lament that no one reads books anymore. This article may help you understand why. Her essay made me wonder: What contemporary books would I want to read if I were a 17-year-old senior? Books that would make me read more. Gateway books, we'll call them:

The list:
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, Mark Haddon (Youthful narrator with quirky appeal and, at the heart, its a family story with a mystery involved. At 17 I am all about quirky.)

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer. (Another quirky youthful narrator, this time set against the events of 9/11. This is sure to appeal to those who've come after.) Once you get this one in your system, you'll no doubt go back and read Everything is illuminated. Before you know it, you're sneaking around a fat paperback copy of The Stories of John Cheever!

The Namesake, Jumpa Lahari. (Hard not to love this one. After this, you might be inclined to go search out her other books, do an end around to Zadie Smith, back to Michael Ondaatjie, Philip Roth...)

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi. (Get yourself started with graphic novels, as the librarian in Bob Thompson's excellent Post essay, right here, suggested, and you won't be able to quench your thirst for more.)

B, Jonathan Baumbach. (I'm going out on a limb with this one. Baumbach's older than these other writers. Mostly off whatever radar gets people reading books. He's truly someone to read, though, and B is a great place to start. Funny and smart. Narrator reflects on his life, and what a life! Told in a cool, ironic way that appeals to this 17-year old.)

(WILDCARD; or, the best book too few people have heard of)

The Wonder Book of The Air, Cynthia Shearer. I wish I had read this when I was 17.

Now let me ask you: What books do you think would be good reads for high schoolers?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Workshop Reflections

Yesterday evening marked the last meeting for my writing workshop that I attended for the past five weeks (basically the entire month of August.) All and all, I learned a good deal about poetry about myself. I learned how comfortable I was writing the same way about the same old things. I am aware of this fact now. It’s a liberating and a sanity-testing discovery.

So, here are a few things I have learned that I wanted to share:

-Take Risks! I know this sounds cliché to workshop-goers but there is something to be said about writing that is done from a place of anxiety or fear. Choose topics that you ordinarily wouldn’t write about. That writing tends to have something “added” that safer topics often lack.

-Occasionally, pick a writer and try to emulate some of the things they do in their piece (e.g use of language, sarcasm, personae, shape of the poem, theme, pacing, etc.) It might also be nice if this writer was a recommendation so you’re approaching this fresh.

-Choose writing partners for their skill as writers as that will give you an honest pair of eyes to depend on after the workshop.

-Save your notes from your workshop. The same comments that were made on your writing in the workshop is probably applicable to future writing.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Closed for Repair & Caption Contest #2

The Writer's Center may be closed for cleaning and slight repair this week, but staff is still hard at work preparing for the upcoming workshop and events season. If you haven't already looked at our workshop or event schedule, go ahead and do it now. Click me.

We'll still be posting on our blog this week, of course. But if you're looking to be in touch with the WC family, go on over to our Facebook page and see what's up.

Above is installment number 2 of our caption contest, compliments of this guy:

Serena won last time (and Serena, it occurs to me that we owe you a prize). Serena and the winner of this contest gets to choose a "new" book from our store at the center at our Open House on September 6th. Noon to 3 p.m.

Oh, and if you have trouble posting a comment or caption on this site, please send it to thewriterscenterATgmailDOTcom.

Okay. Ready, set, go.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Guest Blogger Charlie Jensen: LOCUSPOINT and internet publishing

Literary publishing has moved in new and interesting directions since the internet became a readily-available publishing tool. Much like the sudden advent of print publications in the 60s and again in the 90s when advances in printing made those efforts more cost-effective for small publishers, the internet has had a somewhat democracizing effect on the literary magazine biz. No longer beholden to prohibitive printing costs, writers and writing enthusiasts everywhere are putting on their editor/publisher hats and tossing their work into the ring.

One of the essential differences between online and print publishing is so simple, you may not have thought of it: binding.

Binding, as a concept, not only allows us to cohere items together, but it also dictates permanent sequencing and ordering of materials: while you can flip through the book any way you want, ultimately, the book itself will always be the same physical object.

The internet is not bound, or better to say it is infinitely bound--links can attach pages to each other in any number of ways. This is an opportunity to change the way we think about publishing.

While some people have enjoyed replicating the print journal model on the internet because it is more cost-effective, some editors are finding new ways to present work. No Tell Motel, for instance, uses a "residency" binding structure in publishing poets: five poems from a poet are published in a given week, with a new piece appearing each day so that the entire set are online on Friday. In this model, poets are "checking in" and "checking out" of No Tell Motel, but in the meantime, enriching the audience.

42opus "builds" its volumes and issues over time, posting a new piece every few days or so.

Born publishes multimedia collaborations between artists and writers, adapting literature with audio and visual elements to create entirely new works.

These are just a few examples of innovative publishing being done on the web--but more importantly, it could only be done on the web.

A few years ago, while attending the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Austin, I had a big brainstorm. Since the internet is completely decentralized, but because poetry is so tied to communities, colleagues, and place, why not publish work on a place-by-place basis?

And so LOCUSPOINT was born. As "The place of poetry," it not only publishes work from a specific community or city, it also provides resources for people who want to get more involved in that place.

I hope you'll take some time to explore the innovative publishing happening on the internet and, better yet, embrace this new way or promoting writing!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

As the Summer Winds Down: A Special Tribute

First, I want to start off by referring back to our earlier Name that Caption contest post. Remember that one? Well, after a couple weeks we now have a winner. That winner, it turns out, didn't have a lot of competition (but that just makes judging easier!)

Drumroll please. And the winner is...a foregone conclusion: It's Serena with "The Great Hamburger Parachute Race." Congratulations, Serena. I hope you're reading this now!

Now, on to other matters....

As the summer winds down, we've definitely got to pay a big tribute to our fabulous group of interns and one full-time part-time staff member (who're now leaving us or have already left us). Each of them have helped give your Writer's Center a tremendous lift.

A big thank you goes out to...

Carrie. Some of you may have noticed how organized the Center's used book rooms are now. This is due 1000% to the hard work of Carrie. Working diligently every day, Carrie went to town on those books. If Carrie were on a reality TV show that pit her against a big mess, I'd put my money on Carrie to clean it up!

Elyse. Elyse was the publishing/communications intern par excellance (you may have read her blog post yesterday featuring instructor Sarah Blake). She did a lot for us here at the Center--and I mean a lot, especially in this office--and everything she did she did like a pro. You'll be missed!

Janel. At the risk of sounding redundant, I'm going to say that what Janel has done--and continues to do--for the Center is irreplaceable. Somehow, she manages to swerve between me and Sunil and understand what we're talking about. Not an easy task, that. Happily, Janel is NOT done here at the Center. An American U grad student, Janel has accepted a part-time position on staff. Yay!

Gonzalo. Gonzalo wasn't here every day, but his presence was a big plus. From delivering brochures to gathering data online, Gonzalo was a rock. But check this out: After leaving us, Gonzalo will be heading to Europe in the employ of Francis Ford Coppola. He'll be tasting wines and writing about them for some wine magazine. That's some kind of post-college dream job, eh?

Alexis. I most certainly didn't forget you (you thought I did, huh?). Well, Alexis was employed at the Center for a couple years, starting as an intern. But she stayed and we're glad she did. She was Sunil's assistant in programs and she did an awesome job. Now she's out in Columbia, MO starting her Ph.D program at U of Mizzou.

Thanks for a great summer everyone! Keep us posted!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Guest Blogger: Elyse on Sarah Blake's 'Grange House'

Hey everyone, this is Elyse, the Publishing Intern at the Writer’s Center. Fortunately for me, the Center has a great program for its interns- a flexible work schedule, a great work experience, and a free workshop! I took Sarah Blake’s Creative Writing: Getting Started and Sarah was kind enough to agree to an interview on her book Grange House.

I’m very much into historical fiction, so Grange House- set at the end of the Victorian era- was right up my alley. The novel takes place in 1896 Maine, in an old manor house-turned-hotel, the eponymous Grange House. The hotel is one of those buildings full of Gothic mystery, as great a fixture in the fictional landscape as Wuthering Heights, and the summer home to cast of intriguing characters. The main character is Maisie Thomas, 17, fanciful and desperately aching for more. Her summer begins ominously when one foggy morning she discovers a pair of ill-fated lovers, drowned in the bay by the Hotel. Add in a reclusive authoress with a mysterious past (Miss Grange), ghosts of all kinds, your usual Victorian love triangle, and more mysterious deaths and you are sucked into a world of gentle mystery culminating in a very unique coming-of-age story.

1. How long have you been working at the Writer's Center?
I started teaching at the Writer’s Center in April, 2008.

2. What classes have you taught?
I’ve taught two classes: What’s the Plot?, a reading workshop on plot—what it is, how to find one, how to write one, how you see it working in great novels; and Beginning Fiction.

3. Now, on to your fabulous book, Grange House. The novel resonates with overtones from Victorian literature- both in Maisie's reading material and in the novel itself, in a quite impressive metafictional layering. How difficult was it to keep this balance?
Writing Grange House was very much an act of literary ventriloquism for me—it sprang out of my love of long Victorian sentences, of Victorian plots, and the sense that characters inhabit a textual world: in novels of the period much is revealed in the guise of characters talking about what they are reading, what they are thinking in terms of life or art, etc. So the balance between Maisie’s reading and Maisie’s story is its own subplot—and one that was fun to play with.

4. Maisie's interest in reading and how the sorts of books she reads influences her character reminded me a lot of David Copperfield, when Dickens lists all the books he thinks every child ought to read to form a more perfect understanding of humanity in general. Why did you chose the books you did?
The novels and poems that Maisie is reading—Jane Eyre, The Mill on the Floss, Swinburne, Tennyson—all narrate the stories of mid/late 19th century girls becoming women—and much as a present day seventeen year old would hold her life up against a character’s in a movie or on TV, Maisie’s guides for behavior are these. But Grange House is also a novel about writing novels(and lives)—and Maisie is charged with finishing an older woman’s story, finding out the ending and then writing what happens. In so doing, Maisie reads and then writes her own life. She is writing her story then, very much mindful of not repeating the Bronte and the Eliot. It’s as much about how women become writers as it is about girls becoming women.

5. I believe you have a Ph.D in Victorian literature; what about the books of these period interests you the most?
I love the leisure with which the big old novels of the Victorians take on the world—and I love the capaciousness of that world. Middlemarch, for example, sets so many characters in motion, and then sets back and watches (for pages and pages) the many multiple arguments on race, class, politics, social expectation, art, beauty, immortality, banking—play out.

6. Grange House was a very different coming-of-age story wherein the heroine ostensibly looks for love but finds herself instead. Did you set out to write Grange House with this twist in mind, or did it develop during the writing process?
I didn’t know what Maisie comes to know until I was nearly at the end of the first draft and realized—oh! that’s who she is. It was very exciting in the writing.

7. Could you describe the particular process of writing Grange House?
Grange House sprang very much out of my doctoral work—I had come to the end of my orals exam preparation (which basically requires you to read every single relevant novel of the 19th century) and just wanted to read another Bronte novel. Meanwhile, I had begun writing little sketches of a family living in the 19th c. off the coast of Maine, a family that behaved as though it had a secret, though I didn’t know what that secret was. Then my grandmother died and my aunt gave me a leather box full of about 200 love letters exchanged between my great-grandparents, Maisie Thomas and Jonathan Lanman, written in the months before they were officially engaged. I began to transcribe them, and one day I was reading and transcribing the letter in which Maisie describes how her father fell through the floor of an old tower to his death. I had chills—reading and writing simultaneously—and I realized that that was the beginning of my novel, and that somehow Maisie’s story intersected with the Maine family’s secret. That letter of Maisie’s and the subsequent answer from Jonathan are both in Grange House, fully intact.

8. Do you have a particular process when you write, or does it differ from piece to piece?
I’m not sure I have a particular process other than to get up every day and try and figure out what on earth I am doing, based on what the writing is telling me. This second novel has taken a blisteringly long time—as I try and understand what my characters are up to, I have written two whole novels that will never see the light of day in service to this one that will, thankfully, appear.

9. I was lucky enough to take your beginning fiction class, but for those who didn't, what do you think is most important for a beginning writer to know before starting in on a project?
That what you have come to say is almost always a mystery, and that you have to have the patience of a blind man navigating around a new room, every single time you sit down to write.

10. And finally, you've got a book coming out in 2009. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
My second novel, The Postmistress, is set in the year before we enter World War II, and goes back and forth between the lives of a radio war correspondent who works for Murrow during the Blitz, and a postmaster in a small Cape Cod town until their lives intersect because the postmaster doesn’t deliver a letter to a woman in town saying that her husband has died. I am interested in the gap in time before we know the news—and in this case, the gap in time when we were almost at war, but not at war as a nation.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Charlie Jensen: The Hills Are Alive

I'm very excited right now. In just a few short days, MTV will air the first episode of the new season of its famous (and much maligned) "reality show" The Hills.

The Hills follows the life of Lauren Conrad (of MTV's earlier show Laguna Beach) and her friends as they go to school, date, and work in the fashion and music industries in LA. If you don't watch the show, you're probably aware of the huge Heidi Montag/Lauren Conrad fued just by standing in line at your local grocery store, where tabloid headlines frequently feature the pair's public retorts.

Why should writers care about The Hills? I mean, why am I even mentioning it here, when admitting my love for it in such a public way will likely lead to some public chiding on the part of our members?

Put simply, The Hills is one of the most brilliant hoaxes of all time. Profitable, too.

A reality show it isn't. Although billed and marketed that way, you can tell after watching just fifteen minutes of an episode that there are few shows on TV quite as premeditated, structured, and "written" as this one. Altough I do believe the actresses are ad libbing most of the time (pay attention to their abrupt, segue-less conversation. "I really like mangoes! Oh, and isn't Spencer Pratt, like, totally annoying?"), the way the scenes are set up and shot implies that a lot of thought has gone into what you're seeing, what you're hearing, and the overall arc of the show.

How else to explain, then, the neat little arc of season 3, when Lauren's newly bff friendship with Audrina suddenly hits the skids just in time for the season finale?

What's truly brilliant about The Hills isn't the show itself, but the way the show has leaked over into the rest of our reality. Lauren, Audrina, Heidi, and Whitney all live in our world year-round, even if cameras only follow them for a few months each year. The rest of the time, their public and private lives are generating enough fodder to keep MTV's marketing machine humming along quite nicely.

If you're curious, The Hills returns Monday night at 10 pm on MTV.

Incidentally, I watched my first episode when I flew out to Bethesda for my interview for this job. And in the meantime, I watched the entire season.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Guest Blogger: Abdul Ali on Taking a Workshop

For the past three weeks I’ve been taking a poetry workshop. Overall, I find workshops to be helpful. Helpful in the way that aspirin relieves a headache. Whenever my brain freezes and no poetry comes out I get the urge to sign-up for a class, adding a few tools to my writer’s toolbox each time. I really enjoy the whole experience of a workshop. It’s like auditioning for American Idol, being naked, pretending nothing phases you; after all, you want to be a professional, right? So, the whole time I wear my poker face and listen to the comments that my classmates make. The whole time I’m waiting for the verdict: does the poem do its job or not?

I am most excited about the rigor of the workshop. How my instructor doesn’t let me slide by on being clever, or those lazy lines that we poets sometimes crunch out. On my first day, my instructor identified a poet that was close to our developing aesthetic and charged us with finding a copy of their book before next class—whether the book was in print or not. It was hell on earth (but I loved it!) I’m learning (even while I’m typing this) the best thing that a workshop can give a writer is a fire: a thirst that will continue beyond the last day of the workshop.

Are you still thirsty from a recent workshop?

Friday, August 8, 2008

Charlie Jensen: On Hubris and Humility

At lunch this week, one of my colleagues was discussing a friend of his, a poet, whom he said was not much of a "self-promoter" but who was, in fact, a talented writer. He wanted to encourage her to get her work out into the world, to readers, but suspected her quieter demeanor was making her reluctant to make that step forward.

"I think being an artist requires an odd combination of hubris and humility," I told him, and our lunch companion agreed.

It's a philosophy I hold close to my heart as a writer. On the one hand, I have to believe--really believe--that the work I write is worth reading, that people should publish it and, occasionally, purchase it. That's the hubris.

And on the other hand, I always have to remember that there are writers out there who do amazing things, things I admire, things I want to work toward achieving. More than that, no matter how excited I feel about something I've just written or published, I can never "rest" on that excitement. I have to believe I can do better, work harder, accomplish more. That's the source of the humility.

It reminds me of what a teacher once told me about the poet Marianne Moore. Raised Presbyterian, Moore was brought up internalizing the Christian ethos of service toward others and humility toward God, while at the same time having a deep assurrance that Moore was among the "elect," those whose faith guaranteed them a place in Heaven. This tension between entitlement and a kind of poverty are always at work in Moore's poems.

Despite my desire to lean heavily toward humility and go easy on the hubris, I think most artist find themselves migrating between the two poles. When the words are really flowing, we feel empowered, talented, intelligent, unbeatable! And when we go to the well and find it dry, we're reminded of how fleeting the art is and how powerless we are in the face of it.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Importance of "minor" Characters

Some of you may recognize today's blogpost. I posted it way back in March at SFWP's blog:

It's an admittedly long post, but it sums up something about writing fiction that's near and dear to me. Here it is:

I recently reread James Dickey's disturbing but wonderful novel Deliverance. For whatever reason, the novel inspires me to get up every morning and write. Dickey's language casts a spell of some kind over me. It's straightforward and clear and extremely precise. Also, from what I hear it took him several years to write the novel, and that's reassuring. Hearing stories about how long it took some writers to write great novels is simply inspiring. Novelists need to be in it for the long haul. When you think about how badly you wrote on any given day—maybe you struggled to get 2 or 3 even remotely passable sentences scribbled down—it's always nice to remind yourself that some great novels took a long time to write. I can imagine that Dickey spent many, many days poring over the words on the page and not getting anything accomplished—and probably feeling miserable about it.

But somehow, he did finally manage it. And what resulted was a great book.

Anyway, what I want to write about is one brief element from Deliverance. You see, one of the things I've discovered is that it's quite a challenge to write new and secondary characters into a novel: characters who leap (or enter) into the story for a brief snatch of time and then exit again, never to be seen or heard from again. Their role in the story is to bring out some important element of the main character(s) in a way that is A) dramatic and B) interesting. The dramatic part is extremely important. It's one thing to say such and such a character likes to listen to music, for example, it's another thing entirely to see the character listening to music, rapt. By seeing the character dramatically portrayed in scene, readers gain a far greater understanding of who he or she is.

But it can be difficult to find a situation for your characters that honestly and significantly presents readers with a deeper understanding of the complexity of his or her character. Novels can be long and meandering, but, as with any story, there should be no excess scenemaking for the pure glory of scenemaking. In other words, nothing should be in your novel (or for that matter, story) that doesn't in some way assist in shedding greater light on your characters or the story they are wandering around in. Remember: they are not aimlessly wandering around.

And that leads me to this one truly fantastic moment in Deliverance. In the edition of the book I own, this moment occurs on page 58. Here's the set-up: There are four principal characters in this novel—four men who go on a canoe trip in the backcountry of Georgia (perhaps you've seen the movie)—and before they get to the river, they stop at a Texaco station in the town of Oree. One of the men, Drew, plays the guitar. When the old man who works the gas station sees that guitar he gets excited and brings a boy named Lonnie out of the station. Lonnie is a banjo player. This is how he's described:An albino boy with pink eyes like a white rabbit's; one of them stared off at a furious and complicated angle. That was the eye he looked at us with,with his face set in another direction. The sane, rational eye was fixed onsomething that wasn't there, somewhere in the dust of the road.

When I first read that paragraph it struck me—and still does—as a pitch-perfect demonstration of how to vividly portray a character in as few words as possible. Following John Gardner, I believe that any character mentioned in a story should have some definitive appearance—something for readers to visualize. (I don't mean to suggest reams and reams of lengthy description of what they're wearing, how tall they are, etc. I mean only something to give us an idea that the character is full-bodied, three dimensional.) And Dickey's description here is quite a visual; we recognize this oddly-shaped character, even if we've never seen his like before. If you saw this Lonnie walking down the street, you would take a second glance. What makes it so good, in my view, is how it gives readers a sense of the creepy and the strange. In doing so—and this is why the description is significant—it adds to the backwater mystique that makes the world these four men have entered seem dangerous, and when you read this book, you'll see that's clearly Dickey's intention. The description of Lonnie adds layers of depth to the overall narrative, as well as heightens the tension and drive of the book: this is a scarier place than what these men anticipated when they set out on their trip. Readers feel it, and they see it. And we know something bad is gonna happen to somebody.

Why does this matter? Well, for one thing writers always want to make their stuff interesting for readers, in some way. Description is one good way to do that. Everybody knows what fog looks like, right? You can possibly get away with telling readers, "Dawn broke and there was fog." Readers would know what you mean. But it's boring and they wouldn't necessarily learn anything different about fog or how a certain character sees it, and that's what makes literature interesting: you can present a unique vision of life. Try this instead: "Dawn broke. A cold, heavy fog settled in like a furry coat." Neither image is particularly brilliant, but the second at least attempts to describe a little more vividly what the fog looks like and how it feels. And that to me is the writer's job. Highlight as interestingly as you possibly can the mysterious elements that comprise the world we all live in. (You want readers to gasp: Ah, you're right. It does feel like that.)

For the second thing, it points out that even secondary, once-seen-and-then-gone characters can (and must) play a significant role in the narrative—that they should not just be plopped down in the story as a means to an end or to simply fill space between action A and action B. It's an easy temptation to make these characters comic fodder, on the one hand, or flat "devices" on the other—designed to make your novel denser, or to give it the appearance of something larger. But, as the passage from Deliverance makes clear, even the "smallest" characters, whose time in your novel is short, should be granted the same qualities of humanity that your main characters receive. When you honor even the smallest details of your work, you make the whole work stronger bit by bit.

Do you have any similar examples from your own reading?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Writing on Time

As writers we often ask ourselves how certain words come to be. Why do we accept them? Let’s take the word deadline, for example? I suppose the line of time dies in that moment when you’re supposed to have something done. Since most of life happens while you’re working feverishly on deadline, why don’t we use the word lifeline instead? It would be all too simple if all life were to pause when you had an article to turn in or a short story to get postmarked or a poem whose final line won’t behave.

When I was in college we (serious) English majors would often discuss the preoccupations of writers. For writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, death was their preoccupation. I must admit that my preoccupations are time and technology. The two are basically twins. Though one is the manufactured cousin of the other, they both relate to time and how we live and relate to it. As an editor, almost everything for me depends on a deadline. Time is the measuring stick for being productive: did so and so get the story in by deadline? And yet, as a writer I rely on a different clock, more internal. Am I an anomaly?

I rarely set deadlines for articles or poems or plays that I’m writing. Usually something physical will happen that lets me know that it’s time to finish that piece. It’s sort of like being bloated at the dinner table; your body lets you know it’s time to stop eating. Similarly for writing, I start to feel like a fish out of water. I’m finding, too, that I like the adventure of staring at a blank white screen for a few hours before a deadline. The writing becomes more messy, more personal, the rewrite stronger. Every writer must find his or her own rhythm. It’s kind of like dancing, not for everybody. What do you think about deadlines?

Monday, August 4, 2008

Name the Caption Contest

Your mission, should you choose to accept it....

A local artist does these "caption contests" that I like on his blog:

So that means everyone reading this blog, if you're feeling creative tonight, can enter the contest and write the caption. I don't honestly know if you'll win something--accept perhaps the chance to gloat to your friends and loved ones, which is always nice, or perhaps the chance to pass your winning caption deep into cyberspace for the chance to become, er, rich & famous. Enter the contest by commenting on this blog or by writing to

I've been reading Solveig Eggerz's novel Seal Woman, published by Ghost Road Press. Look for an interview on this blog with the author (a WC alum, yes; you guessed it).

Friday, August 1, 2008

Guest Blogger Charlie Jensen on "The Living and the Dead"

One thing that disappoints me about American culture (in general) is the impression I get from people with whom I speak that most of the books worth reading were written by people who aren’t alive anymore.

I was at a party once, chatting with another guest about books and writing. “Who’s your favorite writer?” he asked curiously.

I shrugged. It’s a difficult question for me to answer and is as dependent on my mood and circumstance as much as it is on actual affection. “Well, lately I really enjoyed Jennifer Egan’s novel.”

He stared at me blankly. “I’m really into Virginia Woolf,” he said finally, awkwardly.

“That’s cool,” I said, nodding. “Are you reading any living writers?”

He stared at me blankly, and then excused himself to go to the restroom.

I wish encounters like this were more rare in my life, but they’re actually fairly common when people find out either that I’m a writer or that I’m an administrator for a literary organization. I find that while people are generally pretty excited about books, they’re not really reading contemporary work as much as you might think. Maybe it’s due in part to the circles I’ve run in, but I don’t ever seem to encounter any of the ten million people reading John Grisham.

I think if you love Virginia Woolf or John Grisham (or neither), that’s great. I don’t want to disparage a love of literature in any way. But I do want to challenge people to read and support writers who work tirelessly to create the work our next generation will revere. I think there’s a good chance Jennifer Egan’s work could be help up next to Virginia Woolf’s work in a hundred years—it’s that gorgeously written, interesting, unique.

My question to you, then, is are you still reaching for T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, and Emily Dickinson, or have you already discovered Claudia Rankine, Nick Flynn, C. Dale Young, and Jonathan Safran Foer?