Friday, October 31, 2008

Guest Blogger: Instructor Leslie Pietrzyk

Leslie Pietrzyk is our guest today. She is the author of the novels Pears on a Willow Tree (Avon) and A Year and a Day (William Morrow), which was selected for the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Borders “Original Voices” series. Her short fiction has appeared in many publications, including Washingtonian, TriQuarterly, Gettysburg Review, The Sun, Iowa Review, New England Review, and Confrontation. She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences. She blogs at

Last Sunday, I taught a workshop at the Writer’s Center that focused on writing exercises. As with the recent collage workshop I conducted, I was fortunate enough to get an excellent group of students who tackled every challenge I threw their way with good humor and skill. I followed along with some of the exercises as I could, and got some useful insights into the characters I’m hoping to write about in my new historical novel.

I found some of the exercises in a new book that I highly recommend: Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer, edited by Bret Anthony Johnston. (Thanks, Rachel, for suggesting it to me!) The book offers a wide range of creative and provocative exercises that transcend the “busywork” aspect that some writing exercises can suffer from.

There was an adaptation from the book in the recent issue of Poets & Writers. Since I couldn’t find the article itself online, I thought I’d pass along two of the exercises I found especially useful in this class:

1. The first one relates to character development, and I adapted it from Lee Martin’s chapter, “Subversive Details and Characterization.” Think about a character that you’re working with, and make a list of “props” that are associated with the character—i.e. things they touch, carry, hold, own. I suggest mentally committing to a long list—say, 25 things or so—because if what happened to me is representative, it was the early things that were the most obvious (i.e. my historical young lady had gloves and a snowy white handkerchief…duh). It wasn’t until I moved through the obvious choices that I discovered the more interesting things she might have: a book of poetry with a newspaper clipping used as a bookmark. Well, that’s getting somewhere! Newspaper clipping about what?

Once you have your list, review it and then think of one prop this same character has that doesn’t seem to fit into this list. Then start thinking about (and/or writing) the story of how the character ended up with that item. (In the book, the exercise continues, but this is where we stopped.)I asked the people in the class to share out loud one item of the “regular list” and then the misfit item, and it was remarkable how just hearing these two items suggested the quick outlines of a pleasantly complicated character and, most definitely, a possible conflict that could successfully be developed into a story or essay.

2. The second exercise that I thought was especially effective was the last one, which we did after having spent 4 ½ hours working together and getting to know one another. I found this tucked away in the “daily warm-ups” in the back of the book, but honestly, I thought it was more transformative and powerful than a warm-up. After talking a bit about being brave in our work, and how readers are touched by stories/essays that have a strong emotional truth at their core, I told the class that we would not be sharing out loud any of the results of the following exercise (that was important): this was a private exercise, just for them. Then I asked them to write a list of the stories from their own lives that they would write if they were guaranteed that certain people would never read those stories.

Honestly, before I even finished talking, people had their pens scratching away on paper; it was like a floodgate had been released.

What I found interesting about my own list is that there were some huge, scary topics that I probably would be loathe to address even with a thousand veils of fiction obscuring them. But also on my list—and I wrote down everything that occurred to me, moving quickly without pausing to reflect—also on my list were a number of smaller incidents that seem horrifyingly embarrassing or shocking to me, but which would make a good story or essay, and which probably wouldn’t be a big deal to write about. I mean, am I really afraid to write about that thing that happened in 11th grade sociology class? Other incidents I could see myself addressing fictionally.

So, my follow-up suggestion to the class—and, of course, to myself—was to save this list and someday—maybe not tomorrow, maybe not until you’re 90 years old—but someday, write about some of these topics. If it was a relief simply to see the words privately on this piece of paper, what might it be like to see these things transformed into art and set free into the world?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Political Poetry Reading at The Writer's Center, Sunday, November 2 (2p.m.)

Hey, everyone. I'm working on ads today (and working hard on getting the next Carousel done). But I wanted to remind readers about our event this weekend. If you're interested in politics, the election, or poetry, this event might appeal to you. An Afternoon with poets who've written on political themes. It promises to be pretty interesting, and it certainly is a good lineup of readers/poets. The event starts at 2p.m. Oh, and there's an Open Mic afterwards.

Readers are Naomi Ayala (Wild Animals on the Moon and the forthcoming This Side of Early), Kenneth Carroll (So What! For the White Dude who Says this Aint Poetry), Melissa Tuckey (Rope as Witness), and Dan Vera (The Space Between Our Danger and Delight).

An Open Mic will follow this event. Readers will be able to read ONE poem (three minutes maximum). Sign up for the Open Mic reading is at 1:45.

Register for the event here:

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Ten Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Writing Workshop

Instructor C.M. Mayo is The Writer's Center blog's guest today.

Ten Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Writing WorkshopCopyright (c) C.M. Mayo For permission to reprint, contact the author via

#1. Buy and read your teacher's book. (Analogy: would you let a carpenter whose work you've never seen remodel your kitchen?)

#2. Ask him or her to autograph it. (An autographed first edition hardcover can be surprisingly valuable! And: flattery never hurts! Don't be shy about asking for an autograph; authors love this, they really do.)

#3. Expect to learn. (Analogy: do carpenters learn their craft wholly on their own? Maybe what you'll learn is that this is a writing teacher to avoid. Certainly, this is much cheaper experience than having a bad carpenter mess with your kitchen.)

#4. Realize that most people who come to a writing workshop have naive notions about the writing world (think money, celebrity, booze-crazed Bohemia), no clue from Adam how hard it is to write anything worth reading, how tough it is get published, and how consternating an experience it can be to be published (criminey, all these people taking your workshops who never even read your book!!). Realize, you are way ahead of the game by following steps 1-3, and that, therefore, though you might learn a lot about the craft, you do not need validation from this workshop, its leader and/or its participants, which is what you were secretly hoping for, no?

#5. Expect to give thoughtful critiques to others who (though their manuscripts are suprisingly bad, not to mention boring and often tasteless), are, strangely, resistant and argumentative. Expect also to receive unbelievably moronic comments on your manuscript and know that this, actually, is a good thing because learning to take criticism with open-minded equanimity is part of learning to be a well-published and productive writer--- unless, that is, you want to be a writer who cringes at every review, every blog mention, every shark attack out of Nowheresville, and is, therefore, both miserable and miserable to be around. (You can win the Nobel Prize and someone, somewhere, will say something unkind about your writing. So, Buck up.)

#6. Despite all of the above, take very seriously your critiquing of other participants's manuscripts, for good karma and all that, but also because the fastest way to learn to recognize problems in your own manuscripts is by identifying the same in others's manuscripts. I think it was Ann Lamott who said (more or less), "we point, but do not cut, with the sword of truth." Read the pages carefully, and offer honest, thoughtful, and detailed critiques in a spirit of kindness. (Wouldn't you want the same?)

#7. Remember the bicycle analogy. Like riding a bicycle, to take criticism productively, a writer needs to be able to balance between meekness (listening to everyone) and arrogance (listening to no one). Too much of either, your writing falls flat. (Too much of either and your whole life falls flat, now that I think about it.)

#8. Do the assigned reading. To learn the craft, workshops are not enough (see again Tip #4). If you do the assigned reading while in a workshop, rather than later (or never) you have the inestimable advantage of being able to ask questions and discuss it with the workshop leader and other participants.

#9. Remember, what goes around comes around. If you come to the workshop with an attitude of respect and goodwill, you will attract the same. (Any exceptions you will, one day, consider hilarious. You can also put them in your novel, ha ha.)

#10. Before, during and after the workshop, keep writing. In other words, don't let the workshop deadlines become a crutch. Don't give your power as an artist to anyone else; find your own motivation, develop your own habits. Play God. God riding a bicycle.

C.M. Mayo

C.M. Mayo's "Resources for Writers"

Photos from Political Cartooning Event

Two posts today (because I am tardy). First, as promised pix from our excellent political cartooning event on Saturday. Thanks for all who came out--and of course an extra big thanks to Matt Wuerker, Kevin Kallaugher, and Richard Thompson. Notice, by the way, Richard Thompson's blog (Cul de Sac) in the right panel of this blog. It's definitely work checking out.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Week in Review

This has been a fruitful week.

Abdul has been pounding away at finishing up laying out the new Carousel. We're excited about the new, merged look and feel--and it should be in your hands right on schedule next month.

Sunil and Janel set up the workshops and posted them online. Setting up a workshop schedule is a long process--first you start by asking the instructors if they want to teach, then you laboriously plan the class and schedule, and finally voila! you have a schedule. Now it's up and ready. Hard to believe that the fall workshops season is nearly over. Only about 4 classes left to go.

The winter events schedule looks pretty interesting, too. Highlights include an evening with Philip Lopate (who has a new book of two novellas, Two Marriages), performance artist Marty Moran, and a partnership with Arena Stage.

Member Nandini Lal sent me a flyer for a South Asian writing conference in DC that sounds pretty interesting. Here's a link to it:

Instructors C.M. Mayo and Leslie Pietrzyk will be our next two guest Wednesday bloggers, starting with C.M. next week. So check it out! C.M.'s gonna post ten writing tips, and those are always helpful, and Leslie will post on one of her recent writer's workshops here at the Center.

That's all for now. I'm going to spend the next week preparing ads and gearing up for the winter workshop/event season. It'll be quite a busy week, but I'll find time to post! On Monday look for a continuation of my discussion on novellas.

Hope to see you tommorow at our Political Cartooning event.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Political Cartooning in an Election Year, Saturday, Oct. 25 7:30p.m.

This Saturday, The WC is hosting a great event. I'm really excited about it, and based on the number of early registrations it seems that many of you are as well. Here's a little bit of info in case you haven't heard. You should really check out the links of these artists. They're terrific, and definitely worth seeing:

With less than two weeks before the election, candidates in both major parties are laying down broad reasons why we, the American people, should step up and vote for them. Standing on the periphery observing are the political cartoonists, keen-eyed artists whose sharp and often witty reflections of the political scene render judgment in simple, stark images. The event will feature three of the nation's most distinguished cartoonists: Matt Wuerker (Politico), Richard Thompson (Washington Post), and Kevin Kallaugher (The Economist). This event is made possible by a generous grant from the Jim and Carol Trawick Foundation.

When: Saturday, October 25 (7:30 p.m.)
Where: The Writer's Center, Bethesda, MD 20815
This event is free and open to the public. Call 301.654.8664 for details or e-mail

You can register for the event here:

About the Artists:

Richard Thompson's cartoon "Richard's Poor Almanac" appears weekly in The Washington Post and his comic strip "Cul-de-Sac" appears weekly in the "The Washington Post Magazine." A book of his collected Almanac cartoons was published in 2005. His illustrations have appeared in U.S. News & World Report, The New Yorker, National Geographic and The Atlantic Monthly. He has received the National Cartoonist Society Magazine and Book Illustration Award for 1995, and their Newspaper Illustration Award for 1995. Visit him online at:

Matt Wuerker is the staff editorial cartoonist for The Politico. Mr. Wuerker's cartoons are syndicated by the Tribune Syndicate and Two collections of his cartoons have been published, Standing Tall in Deep Doo D A Cartoon Chronicle of The Bush Quayle Years, and Meanwhile in Other News: A Graphic Look at Politics in the Empire of Money, Sex and Scandal. His work has been published in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The Christian Science Monitor, as well as Funny Times, The Nation, The American Prospect, and Z Magazine. Visit him online at:

Kevin Kallaugher is the editorial cartoonist for The Economist. In March 1978, Mr. Kallaugher became the first resident cartoonist at The Economist in its 145-year history. His work has been included in more than 100 publications worldwide, including Le Monde, Der Spiegel, Pravda, Krokodil, Daily Yomiuri, The Australian, New York Times, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, and The Washington Post. His cartoons are distributed worldwide by Cartoonarts International and the New York Times Syndicate. You can view his work online at:

Hope to see you there!


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Winter Workshops and More

Regular readers of this blog will notice some changes in layout. With winter workshops and events just around the corner, it felt like the right time to give this blog a new look and feel.

Over the course of the next several months we plan on adding regular features to the blog, and those will be rolled out beginning today. What I'd like to do is request all Writer's Center instructors interested in posting on this blog to e-mail me at Basically, you can use this blog to discuss your workshops, your writing, etc.--I'm open to the possibilities!

I'd like to dedicate Wednesdays to WC instructors. There are more than 100 of you, so that could potentially mean 100 weeks of postings. It's something I've long meant to do. I welcome the idea of making this a dynamic, multi-voiced blog.

For non-instructors reading this blog, the winter workshops will be posted online tomorrow. This should be done by mid-afternoon or so. Check out what we have to offer and contact us if you have any questions. The print version of our brochure-- which is now merged with the Writer's Carousel-- is on schedule and should be in your hands early in November.

Until next time,


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Future of the Newspaper

Here's an interesting article from Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley on the future of newspaper publishing--and how it can be saved. Anyone who loves reading print news would enjoy this, I think (or anyone who's just plain interested):

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Weekend Events (Oct 18 & 19)

This weekend's events (friendly reminder)

Students who contributed to Adele Steiner's Poetry workshop book, Look Ma, 'Hands' on Poetry, will read their poems and celebrate publication of the book on Saturday, October 18, 2008 from 4-6 pm.

And ...On Sunday, October 19...

Winners of the Washington Writers' Publishing House poetry and fiction contests read. David A. Taylor reads from Success: Stories, and Brandel France de Bravo reads from Provenance.

David A. Taylor explores revealing connections between people and their worlds. His articles have appeared in Smithsonian, The Washington Post, The Village Voice, Outside, The Christian Science Monitor, Forbes, and The Atlantic Unbound. He has written award-winning documentaries for PBS, National Geographic, the Discovery Channel and others. David is now working on a documentary entitled Soul of A People: Voices from the Writers Project. He is currently teaching Science Writing at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. He can be found online at

Brandel France de Bravo's poetry has appeared in Fugue, The Kenyon Review, Black Warrior Review and The American Voice, as well as in anthologies such as The Beacon Best of 1999, Creative Writing by Men and Women of All Colors; Fathers, A Collection of Poems; Outsiders, Poems About Rebels, Exiles and Renegades; and Hunger and Thirst. A graduate of Warren Wilson's MFA Program for Writers, she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and was the recipient of a grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Her first collection of poems, Provenance, was a semifinalist for the Academy of American Poets' Walt Whitman prize. Brandel is also co-author of Trees Make the Best Mobiles: Simple Ways to Raise your Child in a Complex World (St. Martin's Press).

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Book: A Dying Animal? (chapter one)

Thanks for your comment, Susan. I like Doris Lessing. I met her once for an embarrasing 3o seconds. But she's certainly a good choice for the award. And I really liked her "oh, god" response when told she'd won.

Anyway, moving forward. I wanted to point out that I was at a FUTURE OF BOOK PUBLISHING event this past week at the library of congress with my friend Art Taylor. He has written on the event really well, and I suggest you go here to find out what he has to say. I'm fascinated--and possibly a little frightened--of what's happening today in regards the industry. Not sure where we're going, really, but it would seem that whatever happens it'll be radically different 30 years from now.

What do you all think? Where are we going? Is the future of the "book" going to be online? Is it going to be interactive, where the "author" will be removed from the text and, instead, we'll have a group of authors (perhaps anonymous authors with avatars) ? Think about this. Is the the paper book a dying animal?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Woe is Me: Philip Roth Passed Over Yet Again

Okay, so I got up this morning, turned on my computer, and went online. My home page is set to this: The first image is a little gross, if you don't like dentists. Beneath that is the "latest news" lineup. What do I see but the sad notice that "Nobelpris i litteratur til franskmand."

Each year around this time I look forward to some things. Baseball. The World Series. I am a die-hard Cardinals fan, but even when they're not in the playoffs, I usually look forward to watching games. But I also look forward to finding out just who's going to win the Nobel Prize in literature. Each year I wonder: Will Philip Roth FINALLY win? Tell me now: why hasn't he won the nobel prize (small letters)? Does anybody know? He's won just about every American award you could possibly win. National Book Award. National Book Critics Circle Award. Pulitzer, etc. etc. You get the picture. Apparently it doesn't matter.

This year's Nobel Prize winner is Jean-Marie Gustave La Clezio. My congratulations to him.

But I'm still a little bummed.

Thanks to Mark Athitakis' blog--which first made me aware of the comments--I've been thinking there's no way Roth will win the prize for a long, long time. If ever. Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the committee, has some unpleasant things to say about American literature. Snippets:

"Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world ... not the United States," he told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Tuesday.

[Hello? Who's talking about the U.S. being the center of the literary world? Why do you think there needs to be a center? A dialogue [see next graf] is a dialogue between two or more people, right? Not a discourse from one person in the center at another outside the center--or as in this case apparently someone else in the center.]

"The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature," Engdahl said. "That ignorance is restraining."

[Your ignorance is restraining. I translate. It aint easy. Plenty of people translate here; books are translated all the time here. In fact, there are many presses devoted exclusively to translated literature: Open Letter, Archipelago, etc, and don't forget FSG or New Directions. This is a bogus argument. Roth's books HAVE BEEN WIDELY translated into other languages. I don't want to be a sour grape kind of guy, but some of the recent winners--and I'm sure they're fine authors--haven't been participating in as big a dialogue as the one Roth has been participating in for well nigh 50 years. I repeat: FIFTY years. (Goodbye, Columbus was published in 1959.)

And, anyway. Insular? This is like the pot calling the kettle black. I think we can all easily note just how many European authors have won this thing in the last ten years. A LOT. What the number of European winners suggests, in my view, is not just the Nobel Prize committee's insularity, but its outright snobbishness.)

Engdahl said Europe draws literary exiles because it "respects the independence of literature" and can serve as a safe haven.

[Should we discuss where the pool of money came from that created the Nobel Prizes?]

"Very many authors who have their roots in other countries work in Europe, because it is only here where you can be left alone and write, without being beaten to death," he said. "It is dangerous to be an author in big parts of Asia and Africa."

[Um....ONLY Europe? Whoa: Does this mean that the old-fashioned notion of the Noble Savage is alive and well? Not to say that writers aren't "persecuted" elsewhere, but sheesh, Europe isn't the only place they can go to write. And let's face it: This argument would actually suggest that the most important literature might just be coming from authors living in "big parts of Asia and Africa" where to write truly is a dangerous exercise of "freedom." Not in insular, happy Europe, North America. Or the West.

Why bother writing more on this? I'm not so concerned about a U.S./Europe disconnect. I AM pulling for Roth, especially, but I'm pulling for more than just that (I realize now): I'm pulling for a dialogue that truly represents world literature's diversity.

I'm not going to conclude this post by saying the Nobel is a meaningless award, as I've heard people say, and I shouldn't get worked up over this. On the contrary, I think it's a very meaningful award--or at least could be--that could honor world literature in a meaningful way. With no disrepect to La Clezio or any of the recent winners, I'm disappointed that so few people, it seems, are making the decisions that create the "dialogue" that is world literature. This award, which represents what the best of literature does and stands for, should not be decided by a small handful of people.

Are we honestly to believe that Europe is the real hub of great literature? Are we going to dismiss not just Roth, Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Delillo, but also Chinua Achebe, Murakami, Allende? This is only a short list off the top of my head. There are many, many more.

No. We are not.

Or at least in a perfect world, we would not.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Guest Blogger Ellen Scheuermann on Independent Bookstores

The other day I found myself in Dupont with time to spare, and I ambled down 19th St. to one of my favorite bookshops for some quality perusing.  When I reached my destination, however, I discovered locked doors and a dark interior.  Dumbfounded, I read the taped up notice and discovered that Olsson's Books & Records, a 36-year-old neighborhood staple, closed for good on September 30th.  I was under the impression that Olsson's status as a DC destination came with perennial popularity, but I guess I was mistaken.  I have to wonder: how many people actually buy books from independent bookstores?

While there's nothing wrong with the average bookselling behemoth, there's a charm to smaller shops that the big guys can't duplicate.  In DC there are bookstores where you can thumb through your new purchase with a beer, find the poetry section in a kitchen cupboard, and pet the owner's cat while you browse.  There's Politics & Prose in Tenleytown, Lambda Rising in the heart of Dupont Circle, and Kramerbooks for the night owl crowd.  Many independent bookstores also showcase up-and-coming DC, Maryland and Virginian writers that you won't find anywhere else.

Take The Writer's Center's bookstore, for example.  We carry books by Instructors and Staff, excellent writing and publication resources, and loads of literary journals you won't see at any chain location.  Our inventory is available online, at  Plus when you visit The Writer's Center's bookstore, you give local business a significant boost and provide direct support to the area arts.

I consider myself lucky to live in a thoroughly literate city with plenty of independent bookstores because I think they shape the character of the community.  It's nice to know I'm not alone.  There was another thing taped to the door of Olsson's, a note in neat cursive that read: "Thanks for making the city feel like home. Tyler."