Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Why the Collapse of Chain Bookstores is a Good Thing for Books. Part 3

Over the last two days, we looked at bookselling in the 1990’s. A period that saw the rise of a war between independently owned and operated bookstores and the corporate chain bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, the sinister successors of Crown Books, which had attempted and failed to crush indie bookstores in the 80’s. By the time we hit 2000, the chain stores were all well established, and the e-sellers such as Amazon had also made a name for themselves. Moving towards the new millennium, it started to look like the indie bookstore was dead…

Life during Wartime (2000-2007)

by Andrew Gifford

It’s sad, looking back, to see how booksellers and publishers became enemies when once, long ago, they had been the best of friends.

I often hear stories of late publisher extraordinaire Seymour “Sam” Lawrence. Lawrence discovered and fought for authors such as Jayne Anne Phillips, Susan Minot, Jim Harrison, Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut, William Styron, Katherine Anne Porter, William Saroyan, Frank Conroy, Miguel Angel Asturias, Tom McGuane, Tom Drury, Richard Currey, and Pablo Neruda. It’s fair to say that not a single one of those names would be familiar if not for Lawrence. He would fill his car with their books and handsell them to bookstores across the country, glad-handing indie store owners and extolling the virtues of his chosen authors. A grassroots approach where bookseller and book industry met face to face. Lawrence is the most notable of this breed of publisher (and unofficial agent), but there were many who did the same. Direct marketing to the indie bookstores from publishers and agents who loved the business, and who loved the books. What Lawrence demonstrated, over and over, was that fine literature could succeed if positioned and promoted well.

You could argue that throwing money at the chain bookstores for paid placements is the same principle, updated for the new era. Just another version of Lawrence plowing dramatically through your doors with this offbeat weirdo sci-fi from some crazy author named Vonnegut.

But, of course, the differences are obvious. Marketing books became a million dollar business, and a cold one orchestrated from glimmering Manhattan offices. Book PR came in from the Wild West, put on a nice suit, and turned into something Machiavellian. Instead of peddling copies to indie booksellers, who may only buy a few, the name of the game became mass sales to chain stores. The craft of writing was no longer important. Publishing became, brutally, a bottom line industry.

This further isolated the indies. Why bother pandering to a few hundred stores who’ll only be good for one or two sales each when you can get in bed with the super-chain who’ll buy several thousand in one go?

From the indie bookstore perspective, the publishers had now betrayed them. By the time the calendars turned to 2001, the indies had declared war and assumed an unforgiving stance. The indie stores, forever inflexible, always the underdog, failed to realize that publishers were, at that point, just starting to see that the other shoe was about to drop. With the brief economic bump in the road after September 11th, there was a moment where the man behind the curtain at the mega-chains was visible. Borders and Barnes & Noble, like Crown Books before them, could not hold the center.

By 2003, the publishing industry’s avarice-addled approach to sales allowed Borders to mastermind a scheme where they were basically running their company off of an endless line of credit. Something that they would ride out until their total collapse at the end of the decade. Barnes & Noble engaged in a similar scheme. With the good graces bought by early successes, the chains would buy up huge numbers of books and then return them, keeping a steady rotation of books moving through the warehouse with only a small percentage actually making it onto the shelves. Publishers found themselves strapped with return fees and merchandise hitting their inventory again long after the money from the sale had been devoted elsewhere. By the latter half of the 2000’s, many publishers could expect a total return rate of 33% for each book title and, as the chain stores foundered, distributors took a casual hand with those returns. Damaged items were accepted, returns were allowed for several years after the original invoice date instead of just six or twelve months. As Borders, especially, parlayed book returns into a lifeboat, they began to destroy small and medium-range independent presses. In 2009, most publishers had cut the chain stores off and prepared to write off unpaid invoices. The death throes had begun.

Many folks saw it coming early on. When the chain stores panicked in the downturn of 2002, they immediately turned on the publishers. The days of fun were over, and never really returned.

Indie bookstores could have turned this to their advantage. With chinks in the armor of the chain stores showing, the indie stores could have appealed to the hearts and loyalty of the publishers. Certainly, they could have won over the small and independent-minded presses who could not afford to play the marketing game at the Harry Potter level. From 2002 onwards, small presses were being slowly driven out of business by the chain model. Each returned book is not only money subtracted from the profits, but also incurs a returns fee that’s anywhere from 10-15% of the net price. When a print run of 1000 copies sees roughly 300 (largely unsalable) returns with a 10% fee attached to each one, then the ship is starting to take on water.

I blame the indie bookstores for dropping the ball at this point. Publishing has always been a scatter-brained business. An old boys network that expects things to be a certain way even after the waiter and the bartender at the gentlemen’s club have died after 50 years of service. Even on the wild and crazy micro-press level – especially on that level – there’s a feeling of isolationism.

Book promotion, on the micro-press level, is roughly like begging for enough money to buy a shotgun and two shells, then going to a place where all the potential bookbuyers are in a dark room, kicking the door open, closing your eyes, and letting both barrels go. Maybe you’ll get lucky and hit something – the most famous example being Evan Connell’s Son of the Morning Star, my favorite rags to riches small press story. Here’s this weird book about Custer written by some guy who wasn’t really a biographer and it meekly sells here and there for a few years, and then it hits this weird groove five years after release and crash-lands on the bestseller list.

The big chains, as soon as they began their quick-return scheme, shook small presses out of their near-solipsistic dysfunction and brought them together. If not in direct confederation with each other, than at least in thought. These big boys ain’t no friends of ours.

So why didn’t indie bookstores and small presses form a united front in the early 2000’s? How did these two potential allies miss each other at such a crucial moment? How did the indie bookstores drop the ball?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Why the Collapse of Chain Bookstores is a Good Thing for Books. Part 2

In yesterday’s post, we moved through the 1990’s where, as a dumb high school kid, I took a job at a small independent bookstore in 1991. A decade of transition and despair for indie bookstores in America, the 90’s saw the rise of the giants of bookselling –, Borders, and Barnes & Noble. Indie bookstores fell under siege, and victory was hopeless. But what are the origins of the big box, chain bookstores? How’d bookselling move from the strange little independently owned stores and fall into the laps of cold-blooded corporations? The intimate process of literature and creation was ripped from the community and homogenized in a fashion reminiscent of a fast food chain. The first shot in this war over bookselling was fired by billionaire Robert Haft.
by Andrew Gifford

Crown Books, Borders, and Barnes & Noble were all members of what some people call the “77 club.” Crown Books was founded in 1977. Borders, founded in 1971, had just begun, around 1977, to consolidate into “Borders Books and Music,” feeding off of a sister company that specialized in wholesale (they wouldn’t become the beast we know today until a 1992 buyout from Kmart). Barnes & Noble, founded a hundred years earlier, was finally hitting the skids with their handful of discount bookstores. Bought by financier Len Riggio in 1971, a prototype version of their chain discount stores appeared on the scene in 76-77. The 77 Club each independently saw the opportunity to hone and corporatize the super-bookstore idea, and they set out on a few different versions of this path in the carefree days of the 80’s.

Barnes & Noble slowly, with an almost saurian single-mindedness, began to devour the minor chains that had been struggling along in the nation’s shopping malls, while Borders, pursuing a similar path, also dominated the catalog sales, riding the coattails of their wholesale distribution house. Crown Books, however, launched immediately into a poorly-planned, hegemonic chain-store bonanza, opening hundreds of stores across the country. Robert Haft, the founder of Crown Books, casually declared war on indie bookstores, summoning shades of early fast food and hotel chain advertisements. He said he was creating something standardized and reliable, no matter where you washed up. If you wanted a book at a discount, then a Crown Bookstore was waiting for you. As we see today in airports and train stations, the idea was to create brand loyalty to the bookstore without actually caring about the books inside. The chain becomes ubiquitous and, therefore, trusted by consumers. Haft, infamously, would position Crown stores in areas dominated by indie bookstores, using the Haft family fortune to fatally undermine his indie competitors.

Indie bookstores fought valiantly, but only a few could stand against the onslaught. A whole generation died in the 80’s under the withering fire from Crown Books.

But then the Crown Empire ate itself from within. The Haft family splintered over internal politics and, by 1993, Crown Books was no more. A decade-long battle over the Crown fortune tainted every aspect of the empire and, from 1990 onwards, the Crown stores vanished, slowly, one by one. The few holdouts not worth mentioning or visiting.

The indie bookstores enjoyed a brief victory. The foolish belief that a national chain of bookstores couldn’t really hold on outside of soulless shopping malls was held by many, and was something I heard often in the back office at my little shop. Crown Books had imploded because the center cannot hold. Focus was, instead, turned to the coming Internet Menace.

The indies reacted to the hubris and bravado of Haft and his Crown Empire like the fractured, confederate force they were and are today. Thankfully, they still possessed some sense of unity. They came together, appealed to their communities, and joined organizations like the ABA, which saw its largest membership in the late 80’s and early 90’s. A membership that, as of 1992, in the wake of Crown’s demise, started to plummet.

With the indie bookstore guard down, the vacuum left by Crown Books was quietly filled by the much more thought-out and corporate-minded Borders and Barnes & Noble. Amazon, a simply demonic presence in the minds of indie bookstores, ascended the throne of darkness so slowly, it almost acted as more of a feint in the battle between the chains and the indies. The e-sellers wouldn’t really come into their own until 2000. But from 1995 onwards, they were seen, incorrectly, as Public Enemy #1.

Borders and Barnes & Noble, taking advantage of hubris now on the part of the indies, didn’t declare war as Robert Haft did. They painted themselves more as Young Turks, and they knew how to play the game. Unlike Crown Books, they’d taken the time to study the audience. They knew that the bookstore is actually about community. An idea that many indie bookstores had left behind in the 60’s and 70’s. The model for the new chains of the mid to late 1990’s saw the introduction of coffee shops, playrooms, music stations, seats and tables, places where customers could go and get lost in the stacks and read. Where they could fold themselves in a corner and enjoy their book unmolested by staff. Though indie bookstores had, at one time, pioneered this community-oriented model, they found themselves, by the mid to late 90’s, unable to afford to resurrect it. A cold war had begun, and the casualties were starting to mount.

By the end of the 90’s, every indie bookstore was on the defensive against the chains and the e-sellers. It was starting to become clear that the brittle structure of the little neighborhood indie bookstore could not hold on.

From the publishing perspective, sales seemed better than ever. The chains allowed for the creation of the “fad book.” Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael was an early hit, also see The Life of Pi, and the wunderkinds Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code. All books that were catapulted to international phenomena not by readership but through the mechanizations of marketing departments. With the chains in place, publishers rightly saw that a few bucks here, and a few bucks there, could translate into a pyramid of books just inside the door of every Barnes & Noble and Borders. Customers, in their Romero-esque zombie states, would have to crawl over these pyramids to get to their new bookstore communities of quiet corners, caffeinated beverages, and sweet rolls. By the very nature of a chain bookstore, just a handful of copies for the shelves of each store would guarantee thousands of sales in one shot.
The Da Vinci Code is, in my opinion, the most successful “fad book.” A well-placed check paid to A Major Bookstore Chain resulted in the chain buying out the first printing and displaying the books front and center. If the customer was waiting in line – any line – in the store, then Dan Brown would be right in front of their noses. (Of course, this was combined with an equally stunning and expensive blitzkrieg on talk shows and elsewhere.)

With chain stores, it became possible for wealthy publishers to simply buy their way onto the bestseller lists. “Staff picks,” “featured titles,” those books piled up by the door, and even the “what’s new” shelves and tables were all paid placements. The chains were making money and so were the big publishers.

The indie stores didn’t have a chance.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Why the Collapse of Chain Bookstores is a Good Thing for Books

Today we begin a five-post, week-long series on publishing. The author is my great friend Andrew Gifford, the founder and publisher of the Santa Fe Writers Project. We've had many conversations over the years on writing and publishing, and I asked him to write a story for FPP on what he feels the collapse of Borders means to writers and the publishing industry in general. And this is it. (By the way, you may recall reading a profile of Andrew in the Washington Post Magazine three years ago. I was interviewed by the journalist. Alas, my awesome quotes were not included.)Stay tuned all week for what is, I believe, a truly fascinating story. Please read it, and please share it with your networks. Here's Andrew:

High Water Mark (1991-2000)

Before the rise of the chain super-bookstores Borders and Barnes & Noble, my first real job, in the summer of 1991 between my junior and senior year of high school, was at a small independent bookstore in Chevy Chase, MD. There were just two cramped rooms in what used to be, generations before, the servants’ kitchen and dining area of an old mansion overlooking Rock Creek. The customer entered through a narrow hallway and came out to the first room, reserved for gifts and gewgaws, and then moved around a sharp bend into the womb-like bookroom, typically unmonitored and unstaffed. A haven from the hustle and the bustle of traffic, wage slavery and salary serfdom, and the endless rat race of the surrounding city and slowly urbanizing suburbs. In the beginning, we had a strong staff. The manager – a fearsome woman who checked every outgoing package, took weekly inventory of every item in the store, and generally ruled her domain with the comfort and ease of all great generals. Her right hand was the bookbuyer, our de facto assistant manager who spent her day in the shadows placing orders. On the floor, I was one of four part timers who rotated through weekend, afterschool, and evening shifts. For the weekday shifts, the shop was run by viciously territorial volunteers, none of whom were any younger than 70. They would reluctantly hand over the reins at 4pm to one of the youthful staff members, and we’d be sure to keep our heads down till their cars had left the parking lot. For the most part, we’d be alone for the remainder of the shift. On weekends, there’d just be two of us, bored and with our noses always buried in books.

I most enjoyed the evening shifts, where I’d see maybe one customer, especially on dark winter nights, and spend the rest of the time ensconced in the bookroom, folded into a corner with a book and the silent, old house all around me. It was there where I learned to truly love books. I came from a bookish family, but was never taught to enjoy books, to embrace them. I was a typical 80’s latchkey kid, and my free time was spent with the Great God Television. When mom came dragging home at 7pm, there was no time for arts and literature. My Catholic school days were filled with nuns who appeared to have never read anything outside of Bible studies, and fanatically twisted lay teachers who behaved more like disgruntled Roman governors of minor provinces than purveyors of education.

I was the youngest of the part timers at the bookshop, coming in to fill the shoes of a pothead musician who had decided to take the summer off and drive his car around the coast of South America. No one heard from him again until nine months later, when he returned wearing a poncho, a skipper’s cap, and sunglasses like some Peruvian version of Gaddafi and demanded his job back. He was brushed off, and I got to keep my job for the long haul. Unlike my predecessor, I was happily a beast of burden for an extraordinary (for a 17 year old in 1991) $7 an hour.

Of course, it hadn’t yet dawned on me – or many people – that 1991 was the start of a transition. The internet revolution hadn’t yet caught hold, but the demand for a different way of bookselling certainly was there. Savvy indie booksellers knew a battle was coming. After all, they had just survived a major struggle, and now sat hunkered down, licking their wounds, in the calm before another storm.

Borders had been making money hand over fist with their mail order catalog. The early versions of their chain stores, and Barnes & Noble’s, had enjoyed success during the big money 80’s. Both were massing troops on the borders of retail, preparing for an all-out invasion.

On the small scale, independent bookstores like ours were seeing a quiet shift from customers coming through the door to a booming mail order business. Though I might sit through an entire shift and never see a customer, the mail, fax, and phone orders were constant. My initial job description was shipping and receiving, fulfilling the mountain of orders and carting them out to the UPS truck while the driver flirted with my boss.

I worked in the bookstore until 1996, off and on through college, and still keep in touch with the current staffers. I’ve watched it evolve, struggle, and, eventually, thrive over the last 20 years. A strange little oasis that’s defended against two decades of unpredictable, volatile, and somewhat dystopian publishing and book-selling methods.

Always feeling somewhat adrift in life, I latched onto this little store in 1991. It, and the staff and volunteers, became a surrogate for the family I didn’t really have, and the friends I couldn’t successfully make or maintain. I developed a fierce loyalty, and even went so far, when I hit college in late 1992, to place my textbook orders exclusively through the store. I was taking advantage of a 20% staff discount, of course, but the store was still turning a profit. In 1995, my boss asked me to stop. It was too much trouble to take special orders, she said. Too much work. When I returned in the summer of 95 to a greatly reduced schedule, I saw a business on the ropes. The mail orders had stopped, and sales had plummeted. A sea-change had occurred virtually overnight.

1995 saw go live. While not the first online bookstore, it was the first user-friendly one, and the most comprehensive. From my small college in central West Virginia, I had no choice but to drink from the poisoned chalice and take the plunge. Our college library was a haven of empty shelves and outdated books, and the only bookstore in town was an old lady’s living room where she’d sit and watch you like a hawk as you thumbed through her romance novels and mysteries. The school bookstore marked books up 200%, and there were so few students there was no hope of trading or reselling to each other. I went to Amazon and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Back at the little bookstore in Maryland, my shipping and receiving room was painted, carpeted, and became the children’s book room. The orders still trickled in from an old guard of rapidly aging customers, but fulfilling them was a collaborative effort and no longer demanded a regular position. In fact, mail orders were seen as a nuisance. The shop entered into a tumultuous phase where staff were let go, management was consolidated into one position, and inventory began to dwindle. By the time I left to pursue a post-college career, there were only two full time staffers and a volunteer army keeping the place just barely above the waves.

The mid-90’s saw much of the despair and language we hear today about the “death of print.” Except it was the “death of the indie bookstores” that weighed on everyone’s mind. The indie bookstore – privately owned, quirky, and pretty much the polar opposite of the big chain bookstores and online “e-sellers” that appeared to be the model of the future. The cold-blooded and untrustworthy internet had come crashing through the gates and laid waste to the previously secure little fiefdoms of indie bookselling. Sadly, the indie bookstores of the era were unable and unwilling to meet this change head on. Many feverishly decided to enter into open competition, appealing to their customers for mercy and for a partisan insurgency against Amazon and the chain bookstores. A sense of betrayal was born. The customers had turned away. The customers had once had a duty to support indie bookstores, and yet they had been lured off by the Sirens of convenience. For the next 15 years, the indies would retreat into different Luddite versions of this bitterness. This sense of them versus the world.

On the horizon, the masts of great warships also started to appear in the 90’s alongside the online bookstores. Borders and Barnes & Noble embarked on their super-bookstore campaign, having spent the 70’s and 80’s quietly devouring smaller chains and discount stores. The superstore campaign, though, had been pioneered by DC’s own Crown Books.

(to be continued tomorrow)

Friday, August 26, 2011

Mid-Atlantic Song Contest Deadline September 15

Our partners at SAW have this announcement for you developing songsmiths, The Mid-Atlantic Song Contest:

he 2011 Mid-Atlantic
Song Contest

Deadline - September 15, 2011
Grand Prize $1000 cash + more
Second Prize $500 cash + more
Third Prize $250 cash + more
Category Golds $100 cash + more
Best Song by Young Artist $100 + more
BMI Songwriter Award $300

Gold & Silver Prizes in these categories:
Acoustic & Folk * Adult Contemporary
Rock/Alternative * Pop * Country/Bluegrass * Vocal Jazz & Blues * Open * Children's * Gospel/Inspirational/Christian *
R&B/Hip Hop/Urban * Instrumental 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Reflecting on Three Years at The Writer's Center

I'd planned on writing a post on my time here at TWC. It's now 5:30 on Wednesday afternoon and, as usual, I'm just getting around to writing the post. On any given day, in an organization that offers more than 300 workshops and 60 events a year, there's plenty of work to do. And that work takes time. So it seems fitting that I'm just now getting to this post. This blog, which I began on a hot June day of '08, has always been a labor of love for me. But it has also been, at least most of the time, something I did at the end of the day (which I hope explains some of the weird posts).

I have to admit that writing this short piece frightens me more than a little. I've spent my last three years here hiding myself, like the Wizard of Oz, behind the big curtain that is TWC. With the exception of my six-month stint as interim director, my job was never to be front and center, and I liked it that way. I could do my thing to help promote the organization--from FPP to TWC's Facebook page, from Twitter to whatever else I could think up to try to get TWC some free publicity. Now, writing this, I'm stepping away from the curtain.

When I became the publications & communications manager at TWC in April of '08, I was eager to take on the challenge. During my time here, I was lucky to have some incredible colleagues (in no particular order): Charles Jensen, Janel Carpenter (you were right about Facebook, Janel), Jason DeYoung, Becky Beauman, Caitlin Hill, Maureen Punte, Zachary Fernebok (who started out as one of my amazing interns), and Sunil Freeman. (This list does not include the excellent interns I've had here.) I learned quite a bit from each of them, and every single one of them has left a strong mark on TWC that will last for years to come. The new Director, Stewart Moss, has brought a new focus to TWC, and I believe that focus is one that could help make TWC viable for many years to come. I hope everyone reading this post gets behind him and TWC, and helps carry the organization safely into the future.

I've also met so many interesting writers and members (many of them became guests of this blog). Too many to count. Being involved with so many people who love writing and books made my job awesome. My gig here was, in many ways, the best possible job for a guy like me: a writer and translator. Seeing TWC events on YouTube, with special thanks to the incredible talents of Maureen Punte, and working with Janel Carpenter on TWC's podcast--these were realizations of goals I had when I started here.

But all things come to an end, and this post can never do any justice to the complex emotions I have at leaving this place. Right now, at 5:52, I'm goggly-eyed and exhausted (and I have to go home, spend some time with my wife and 8-month old son, and finally get busy on the second draft of my current translation project).

But it's time to move on. I was happy to fill in for Sunil during his recent absence to set up the next season of events for the first time. I'm very excited about what's coming up in the Winter/Spring season. They include, among other events: BookTalk 2: Double Indemnity with Art Taylor, Megan Abbott, Maureen Corrigan, Con Lehane, and Blake Robison of Round House Theatre; Laura Ellen Scott (Death Wishing) and Matthew Norman (Domestic Violets); Eric Dezenhall (The Devil Himself) & Eric Goodman (Tracks); a book review panel featuring Dennis Drabelle of the Washington Post, David Stewart of the Washington Independent Review of Books, and former City Paper arts editor Mark Athitakis; and many more.

There's a little for everyone, I hope, in the Winter/Spring event season. Over the course of the last three years, I've had the pleasure of working with a wide number of people. That list is surely long as well, and I can't name everyone, but I'd like to call out some here: Sandra Beasley, Chad Clark, and Matt Byars on Story/Stereo. I was happy to be involved with that event from the beginning, and as you can see from the list of EWFs, there's an impressive roster of winners. When Charlie initiated the Emerging Writer Fellowship program to tie in to that event, I thought it was a stroke of brilliance. Chad and Matt's total dedication to the event, and to supplying us with great musical acts, was simply mindblowing. More recently, working with novelist Susan Coll in a mutual attempt to and bring Politics & Prose, her new employer, into partnership with TWC was a highlight. Though I'm sad I won't be here when that partnership really gets going, I'm happy to know that it will get going. Forward momentum is a good thing. The local literature community will be richer for the partnership.

UPDATE: It's now 8:11 a.m. (I couldn't finish last night!) and I'm back. My son is sitting at my feet here in my office (and not exactly thrilled to be here, let me yell you). I've not written what I sent out to write, but I need to wrap this up. ASAP.

The Big Lesson I will take away from TWC is that a community dedicated to the literary arts is a truly amazing thing. Everyone involved can, and does, make a difference. By their presence alone. And though it's kind of sad to be moving on, I feel good knowing that I'll be just down the road, working for Collegiate Directions, Inc., an organization with a similarly incredible mission.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Writer’s Center Kicks Off 35th Anniversary Reading Series with “The Latino Poet of His Generation”

Martín Espada, an internationally-acclaimed poet with local roots, will also lead a one-day poetry workshop: Barbaric Yawp.

The Writer’s Center is pleased to kick off its 35th Anniversary Reading Series on Saturday, September 10th with former Rockville and Gaithersburg resident Martín Espada, the “Latino poet of his generation” and a graduate of the former Woodward High School. 

Today, Espada is the author of ten collections of critically acclaimed poetry, including his recently published collection, TheTrouble Ball. He’s currently a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. But in 1973, at the age of sixteen, he worked on a cleaning crew at a Sears & Roebuck in Bethesda, an experience he would later write about in the poem "My Heart Kicked Like a Mouse in a Paper Bag," which appears in his latest collection (excerpt below).

“That sixteen year-old boy working at Sears wrote poetry at the time,” Espada says, “but never would have imagined that he would one day return to Bethesda to give a poetry reading.”

When: Saturday, September 10, 7:30 P.M. Register here
Where: The Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD 20815
Admission: $10 for TWC members; $15 for non-members
Details: Contact 301.654.8664 for details, or visit

In addition to this event, Martín Espada will also lead a workshop on Sunday, September 11 (Barbaric Yawp). Here’s an excerpt from his poem “My Heart Kicked Like a Mouse in a Paper Bag” (used with permission by the author):

A stock boy handed me a paper bag one night
as if it were the lunch he forgot to eat, and punched out.
The bag was alive. There was a mouse inside, kicking,
caught sniffing around the Crusher. Bewildered boy
that I was, I called security, department store cops
who loitered at the loading dock, breath hot
from smoking, hunting shoplifters and telling lies
about the war. One of them said: Where’s the mouse?

About the 35th Anniversary Reading Series
The Writer’s Center’s 35th Anniversary Reading Series includes authors who represent the diversity of The Writer’s Center community, which has nurtured a wide variety of writers—and readers—throughout its long history in the DC area. Featured readers include “the Latino poet of his generation,” Martín Espada; renowned slam poet Taylor Mali; and the author of the first-ever biography of Kurt Vonnegut, Charles J. Shields—also the prize-winning biographer of Harper Lee. Finally, longtime TWC workshop leader and novelist Robert Bausch and his former TWC student Allison Leotta prove how successful workshop leaders inspire success in workshop participants. Each event singly is $10 for members/students with a valid ID and $15 for non-members. You can purchase a season pass, though: $30 for members/students; $45 for non-members. Purchase tickets here.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

White Cat-Black Cat: The Question of Truth In Memoir-Writing

By Sara Taber

Sara is leading a Writer's Toolbox workshop at TWC beginning September 19.

A memoir writer vows to tell the truth.  Most often, for those of us not famous, this stringent vow is qualified slightly.  While trying to be as accurate as possible, we promise the most we really can: to offer our--admittedly limited—version of the truth, and to convey our own emotional truth.  But even with these provisos, the task is confounding, for what is the truth about one’s life?

I suppose the search for truth is especially knotty—and keen--in my case, because I was the daughter of a clandestine C.I.A. officer, but it is so for most memoir writers.  To me, identifying the truth is like gazing at an Escher painting. First it looks this way: like a school of fish. Then it looks like a flock of birds.  While writing, I might recall the feral cats I saw on walks by the North Sea.  A particular day, I might remember one cat; the next, a different one might spring to mind.   

My childhood, spent criss-crossing the globe, was a rich, exotic lark, deliciously happy. 

My childhood was a field of grief, rent by constant moves, brittle secrets, self-doubt, and friction.  

In order to tell you the truth of my childhood, which story do I tell?  The triumphant, happy, hearty story—the American success story?  Or the bogged-down, sad, troubled one a Swede might write?

If you looked at a movie of my childhood, you might say, “This is the story of a sensitive, shy kid who grew up to be, for the most part, strong and happy, with struggles along the way.”  Then again, depending on your mood, you might say, “Wow, what a cool, lucky childhood,” or “I wouldn’t have gone through that for the world.”

Beyond the happy-sad dichotomy, there are so many stories about my childhood that would be a version of the truth:

The shy, lonely, grieving girl
The joyful, valiant girl
The girl with the spy glass, who could sail any sea
The girl who wound up on a U.S. Air Force psychiatric ward
My brave, inspirational mother
My terrified mother
My war with my mother
My sweet and philosophical father
My father the tortured spy
A life within secrets
My childhood that zig-zagged across the globe
The people I have loved
My crazy schools
Itinerancy and its consequences
Cultures I have known
One girl’s story of what it means to be American

The truth is: Truth is multiple.  

In writing a memoir, one is forced to make choices between truths, even if one endeavors mightily to include them all.  

Closing the book, I can say of my memoir:  This is one story of my life.  This is not all of me.  I could have written it as though the black, instead of the white cat was on the strand.  But that is for another day.  

Sara Mansfield Taber’s memoir, Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy’s Daughter, will be published in January 2012.  Her other books include Bread of Three Rivers: The Story of a French Loaf (Beacon, 2002); Of Many Lands: Journey of a Traveling Childhood (Foreign Service Youth Foundation, 1999); and Dusk on the Campo: A Journey in Patagonia (Henry Holt, 1992). Her memoirs and essays have been published in The Washington Post and multiple newspapers and magazines, and produced for National Public Radio.  Her website is:               

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Brief Interview With Taylor Mali

Taylor Mali will be appearing as part of our 35th Anniversary Reading Series. That event also presents a fantastic opportunity for local slam poets: a slam poetry competition! My interview with Mali originally appeared in the fall 2011 Workshop & Event Guide.

Kyle Semmel: Can you describe the moment you realized poetry was something you wanted to dedicate your life to? (particularly slam poetry).

Taylor Mali: First, understand that there is actually no such thing as “slam poetry.” What Marc Smith invented in Chicago in the mid ’80s was a poetry slam—it’s a noun—at which anyone could read any kind of original poetry and be scored by five randomly selected drunks from the audience. That said, when people use the term “slam poetry,” they are usually referring to loud, easily accessible, political, indignant, rhythmical, hip hop influenced, urban, fast-paced, cleverly rhymed, light verse because that stuff kills at most poetry slams. But to answer your question, there were two moments that helped me realize that poetry was something I wanted to dedicate my life to: the first occurred while competing in my first poetry slam, which was in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1992. I realized that this art form was made for me, a drama school dropout with literary skills. The second moment was when I finally realized that a life dedicated to poetry might actually pay the bills. That was in 1999, and it was like realizing that the grass you always played in was seen as valuable by the rest of the world. I felt singularly lucky. Still do.

KS: You make a living traveling the country as a spoken-word poet. Yet you’ve also published two books of poetry. Are there limitations that you can get around by switching mediums?

TM: Let me be up front about saying that poetry doesn’t cover all my bills. I make more than I ever would have as a teacher, but I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if my grandfathers had also been poets, know what I’m saying? And yes, by switching from page poetry to spoken word and back again I get to do things that others can’t. For one, I get a wider audience to sit for longer than almost anyone else I know. My shows are routinely an hour, and they are filled with people who were dragged there kicking and screaming and then loved it. I also get to educate the two modalities a little and bring them closer. The spoken word crowd could stand to be a little more literary, and the literary crowd could benefit from a little more playfulness (and I mean real playfulness. If you write a poem solely using words of Latinate origin, that’s not really amusing enough for me).

KS: You’re a former teacher who continues to play a huge advocacy role for teachers everywhere—even going so far as to recruit teachers through the New Teacher Project. What would you say is the biggest challenge teachers face today? For that matter, what is the biggest challenge students face today?

TM: I’ll tackle the second question first if I may. The biggest challenge students face is that they are only encouraged to pursue a very narrow spectrum of education. The things that will most likely help them in the long run—creativity, critical thinking and problem solving, nutrition—aren’t really valued yet by our society. For teachers it’s similar; they have little freedom to teach the way they feel most comfortable teaching. We need to have some controls in place, but we have too many. Also, the lack of respect and lack of pay means that some of the best potential teachers are never even considering entering the field.

KS: What kind of vibe can people expect at a live poetry-slam?
TM: Poets need to have a thick skin. Judges need to be ready to be booed and taunted good-naturedly. And half the audience needs to be ready to go home saying, “I never knew poetry could be like that!” Because the other half will be saying, “Don’t worry, it’s not!” 

Taylor Mali is the author of two books of poetry, The Last Time As We Are and What Learning Leaves, and four CDs of spoken word. He received a New York Foundation for the Arts Grant in 2001 to develop Teacher! Teacher!, a one-man show about poetry, teaching, and math which won the jury prize for best solo performance at the 2001 Comedy Arts Festival.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Stealing Time To Write: The Writing Staycation

By Zahara Heckscher

After the back to school craziness passes and before the holiday insanity starts, there's a short lull in mid October. It's a perfect time to steal a week for your writing.

I've designed the Writing Staycation with people like you in mind -- folks who crave time to dedicate to their writing but just cannot get out of town for a week or afford the hefty fees for out of town writing retreats.

The Writing Staycation is five days of intensive writing, enough time for you to get a significant start on a new project, move forward with a current work, or polish a piece of writing before you send it off to the agent.

The Writing Staycation includes inspiring guest speakers, one-on-one sessions, and most of all, time to write. I’ll also pamper you with free coffee, specialty teas, and healthy snacks. I structure each day with a short warm up activity, a guest speaker for lunch, and an afternoon walk. All events are optional; those who want to simply write can write all day.

So tell the boss you're taking your vacation October 17-22. Tell the spouse and kids you'll still be home for dinner. Tell yourself that you deserve this time.

The past two Staycations have been exhilarating. I hope you can join us this time.


The Writer's Center Staycation allowed me the time and space to focus on my writing without the expense or time away from my family that most writers' retreats would demand.  Zahara brought in an impressive array of lunchtime speakers and the Writer's Center staff was very supportive in providing undisturbed space. I came away feeling refreshed and re-committed to my own process, and surprised at how much could be accomplished in one week. Thank you Staycation!  I'll be back!
-Johnna Schmidt
Director, Jimenez-Porter Writers' House

“It helped me finish the first draft of my novel. Thank you. I found the time and space to just focus on my writing very liberating.”

“The Staycation fills a need for a reasonably priced retreat option, especially for those of us who cannot leave town.”

"This was a fantastic experience. Zahara obviously thought a lot about how to structure the time in ways that would be inspiring as well as foster productivity."

"The Staycation made me feel like a real writer."

"It helped me rediscover my muse."

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

KC's Corner: Dog Days Reading List Part IV: Travel, Eat, and Read

Peat O'Neil will lead Travel Writing Intensive and two rounds of Travel and Food this year.
Click for Creme Catalan recipe

Reading other food writers gives you a sense of the range of ways people write about food and different styles. Where should you start? Peat O Neil,  author of Pyrenees Pilgramage, suggests grabbing a couple of cook books. If you are looking for previews of cookbooks and culinary arts try Appetite for Books. You might keep an eye on several food blogs like 
Outlawcook,  egullet, or Chowhound.  Looking for a book, check out Peat’s flash reviews of literary food reads:

Home Cooking/ Laurie Colwin.
She died young, but novelist Laurie Colwin lived large on a tight budget. Her tussles with stock pots and roasted birds in a New York City studio demystify the notion that great food can’t be produced on a hot plate. Novice cooks learn how to get started and become brave, original cooks. Writers see how to fold memoir into the mix and segue from the story line to topical recipes.

Is There a Nutmeg in the House?/ Elizabeth David
Anything by “ED” is worth reading, and this collection of essays studded with recipes and basted with history includes selections from her published and unpublished work.  Every food writer worth a dash of pink sea salt needs to know ED’s approach to cooking and describing food.

With Bold Knife and Fork /M.F.K. Fisher
Writers interested in culinary topics usually worship at a kitchen shrine to Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, a Californian who brought poetic nuance and elegant prose to instructions on how to make meals. Fisher cooked to express emotional intimacy, and infused her food writing with feeling.

Adventures of a Roving Gourmand/Jim Harrison
French bibliophiles consider Jim Harrison the best author of fiction alive; I don’t know what they think about his food writing. Harrison hails from the “hunt it, dress it, sear and sauce it” school of cookery.  His gusto for life, acumen and way with words are a treat.

Between Meals/Jim Harrison North
Here’s a book that shows how to eat, rather than how to cook or select ripe peaches in the  market.  Leibling wrote for the New Yorker and evidently never missed a meal.  A worthy model for aspiring restaurant reviewers and food writers.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sandra Beasley on "The Strategic Poet"

The Strategic Poet 2 is Sandra Beasley's fall poetry workshop at The Writer's Center. You may have heard Sandra on Diane Rehm recently. She was promoting her new memoir, Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales of an Allergic Life. But Sandra is also an award-winning poet and popular workshop leader. Here she is discussing her fall workshop.

Why title a class "The Strategic Poet"? Because I've been in a lot of poetry workshops over the years, and I've seen the frustration generated by moments of feedback where the meaning is right--
"it needs to be tighter"; "I feel emotional distance"; "maybe play with line breaks"--yet the means are vague. How does the author get from his or her current draft to a tighter, more intimate, more formally experimental version? What are some of the strategies that the great poets before us have used to invigorate their work?

One thing that motivates me in workshops is the memory of attending the 2008 Sewanee Writer's Conference on a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship, assisting  poets Mary Jo Salter and Brad Leithauser in their classroom and serving in tandem with the amazing Eric McHenry.  Among them all, my work showed the least influence of classical form; I was the renegade, the one more interested in anaphora than iambics. I loved the experience, but I also remember the delicacy of the position in being only a few steps over the line into being a mentor. Sure, I had the authority of a book under my belt, but I also remembered the vulnerability of being a student.

I soon realized that the moments that felt most productive were not when we were fixated on the complaints of student readers (who could be fickle) or the solutions of mentoring teachers (who were, at least in my case, eminently human). What worked best was when the whole group was responding--whether enthusiastically or critically-- to an impartial third party, a canonical voice, or a tactic of editing. So ever since, I have found the sharing of craft essays to be a vital part of my approach to leading workshops. Not because I believe and agree with every word I pass out, but because I believe in the powerful discussions that a common reading can spark.

My favorite part about teaching is that moment that you see a poet's eyes light up with the excitement of what they can do with their draft. Sometimes it is as simple as suggesting a switch in the order of stanzas, or giving someone permission to cut their last two lines (which, oh so often, attempt to tie a pretty bow around what has come before). But sometimes someone leaves workshop with a substantial Gordian knot to undo. That's okay. My goal in a class is not to show off how easily we can "fix" a poem on the spot, but rather to give people confidence in their own abilities moving forward.

Anyone who tells you that the goal of their workshop is to give you "finished" poems is short sighted. No one poem is the point , no matter how polished. The goal is to make you a better poet-- and in my case a more strategic one.

Sandra Beasley is the author of Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales  from an Allergic Life (Crown), a memoir and cultural history of food  allergies, as well as two books of poetry. Her collection, I Was The  Jukebox (W. W. Norton) won the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize selected by Joy Harjo. Her debut, Theories of Falling (New Issues), won the  2007 New Issues Poetry Prize. She lives in Washington, D.C., and  serves on the Board of The Writer’s Center.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Zoetrope: All-Story Annual Short Fiction Contest

Calling fiction writers!

Zoetrope: All-Story is hosting its fifteenth annual short fiction contest with National Book Award finalist Jim Shepard judging. Monetary prizes are as follows: first; $1000, second; $500, and third; $250. The three prizewinners, along with seven honorable mentions, will be considered for representation by William Morris Endeavor, ICM, Regal Literary, the Elaine Markson Literary Agency, Inkwell Management, Sterling Lord Literistic, Aitken Alexander Associates, Barer Literary, the Gernert Company, and the Georges Borchardt Literary Agency. Unpublished stories of up to 5,000 words must be submitted by October 3, 2011, at 11:59 P.M. PDT via the submission tool on the contest website. Multiple submissions are welcome ($15/entry), as are submissions from outside the U.S. Complete guidelines are available at the website.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Mondo Peabody: A Profile of Richard Peabody

Here's the third and final installment of our member profiles series. This post originally appeared in the fall issue of the Workshop & Event Guide. The image below is an old photograph of Richard reading at The Writer's Center, of course, but I couldn't resist posting it here.

By Tim Wendel

In our era of increasing specialization, it’s downright refreshing to find someone who not only has a hand in just about everything but excels at it, too. Richard Peabody’s business card has plenty of lines—teacher, editor, publisher, poet, and fiction writer. Through his nationally recognized Gargoyle Magazine, as well as an extensive list of anthologies, he has influenced a generation of Washington area writers, including Julia Slavin, Mary Kay Zuravleff, Dallas Hudgens, Leslie Pietrzyk, and Tom Carson.

Richard grew up in Bethesda (where his father, Richard, Sr., once ran a pet store on Wisconsin Ave.) and went on to receive a B.A. in English from the University of Maryland and an M.A. in Literature from American University. His work is often set in the D.C. area and strongly influenced by the Beat Generation and the experimentalism of the 1960s. In addition, Richard has taught at a number of local schools including Georgetown University, University of Maryland, The Johns Hopkins University, St. John’s College, and The Writer’s Center.

In fact, few have a longer connection with The Writer’s Center. Legend has it, and Richard confirms, that when founder Allen Lefcowitz first raised the possibility of a place where local writers and friends of letters could gather, Richard handed him a five-dollar bill on the spot and became TWC’s first paying member.

Richard also runs Paycock Press, which was first established to put out Gargoyle. But since such beginnings, the press, like its founder, has moved into more and more fields. Peabody’s highly successful anthologies Grace and Gravity and Enhanced Gravity showcase fiction by Washington area women writers. His Mondo series, which was co-edited by Lucinda Ebersole, focused on writing about such American icons as Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Elvis, and Barbie.

“Some may see D.C. as a literary backwater, but I refuse to accept that,” Peabody says. “I’m from here and I love to champion the people writing here.”

Tim Wendel is the author of nine books—novels and narrative nonfiction—including Castro’s Curveball and High Heat, the latter of which was an editor’s selection by The New York Times. He teaches writing at The Johns Hopkins University. For more information, visit his Web site

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Writer’s Center Announces 35th Anniversary Reading Series

Includes slam poetry featuring Taylor Mali; “the Latino poet of his generation,” Martín Espada; and Kurt Vonnegut’s biographer, Charles J. Shields

The Writer’s Center is pleased to announce the fall line-up for its 35th Anniversary Reading Series. The list of authors represents the diversity of The Writer’s Center community, which has nurtured a wide variety of writers—and readers—throughout its long history in the DC area. Featured readers include “the Latino poet of his generation,” Martín Espada; renowned slam poet Taylor Mali; and the author of the first-ever biography of Kurt Vonnegut, Charles J. Shields—also the prize-winning biographer of Harper Lee.

Longtime TWC workshop leader and novelist Robert Bausch and his former TWC student Allison Leotta prove how successful workshop leaders inspire success in workshop participants, and the two will come together for a joint reading. Additional 35th Anniversary events are planned for the winter/spring, and will include Stanley Plumly/Josh Weiner, Clark Blaise/Bahrati Mukhurjee, and BookTalk: Double Indemnity featuring novelist Con Lehane, NPR critic Maureen Corrigan, novelist Megan Abbott, and Round House Theatre’s Blake Robison in an event moderated by fiction writer and critic Art Taylor. This event is co-sponsored by Round House Theatre, which is staging the theatrical adaptation of Double Indemnity in May/June 2012.

All 35th Anniversary Reading Series events are at The Writer’s Center.
Tickets for all fall events are $10 for members of The Writer’s Center; $15 for nonmembers. Except for Taylor Mali: members/students with a valid ID $5; nonmembers $10. To purchase a season ticket to attend each of these events, the cost is $30 for members; $45 for nonmembers. For additional information, or to purchase tickets, visit the 35th Anniversary Reading Series page at or e-mail

The Events:

Saturday, September 10, 7:30 P.M. Martin Espada: The Trouble Ball
Known as the “Latino poet of his generation,” visiting writer Martín Espada is the author of 10 collections of critically-acclaimed poetry, including the recent The Trouble Ball. A poet, editor, translator, and attorney, Espada’s powerful poetry explores the social conditions affecting immigrants and Latinos. He is also leading a one-day workshop, “The Barbaric Yawp.”
Friday, September 30, 7:30 P.M. Robert Bausch & Allison Leotta
Robert Bausch was educated at George Mason University, and he says he has been a writer all his life. Since 1975, Bausch has been a college professor, teaching creative writing, American literature, world literature, humanities, philosophy, and expository writing. In 2009 he was awarded the John Dos Passos Prize in Literature.

Allison Leotta served as a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C. for 12 years. Her first novel, Law of Attraction, was named one of the best books of the year by Suspense Magazine, and The City Paper called her "one of the most notable new faces to debut in 2010." Leotta also blogs about what TV crime shows get right and wrong, from her perspective as a real-life sex-crimes prosecutor. 
Purchase individual tickets

Tuesday, October 11, 7:30 P.M. Taylor Mali: Slam Poetry Competition
Taylor Mali is one of the most well-known poets to have emerged from the poetry slam movement. At this one-of-a-kind event, the finalists of TWC’s poetry slam competition will get to show their stuff. A performance by Mali follows. If you are a slam poet and would like to participate, visit us at for details. We will ask our community to vote for their favorites, and winners will be invited to the finals.

Taylor Mali is the author of two books of poetry, The Last Time As We Are and What Learning Leaves, and four CDs of spoken word. He received a New York Foundation for the Arts Grant in 2001 to develop Teacher! Teacher!, a one-man show about poetry, teaching, and math which won the jury prize for best solo performance at the 2001 Comedy Arts Festival. Purchase individual tickets.

Saturday, November 12, 7:30 P.M. Charles J. Shields: Portrait of a Biographer
Charles J. Shields spent five years researching and writing And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life. He is also the author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee—a New York Times best seller. Two years ago, he co-founded the 400-member Biographers International Organization (BIO), and is currently associate director of the Great Lives program, which features presentations by 20 famous biographers each year at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. Purchase individual tickets.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

K.C.'s Corner: Dog Days Reading List Pt. 3: Quintet of August Travel Reads

Peat O’Neil gives us her recommendations for travel reads in Dog Days. She will lead Travel Writing Intensive, a two part workshop offered at The Writer's Center in November. 

My corollary to “when you travel, read” is “when you cannot travel, travel by book.” Peat O’ Neil reads,  but not” too much,  ” travels, and then writes about her travels. In her own books such as Pyrenees Pilgrimage: Walking Across France, her notes form a terrific reading list for the wannabe traveler as does her blog on the book. Today Peat tips us off to a “Quintet of August Travel Books.”

Skating to Antarctica                                                                                                                         Escape the summer heat and humidity with Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica, A Journey to the End of the World (Hopewell, NJ: The Ecco Press, 1997) . The narrative skates the edges of Diski’s memories while the ‘Vavilov’ navigates around ice-floes. Come on board through Diski’s wry commentary on the eclectic collection of characters assembled on the Russian oceanographic research ship retooled to carry paying guests.  Diski mulls her personal history growing up in London while staring at the white and blue-grey seascape, revealing a cool inner-scape with her educated cranky-traveler voice, such a refreshing change from standard ‘wow-gee-whiz’ travel writing.

 Sacre Blues                                                                                                                                
 If you think Canada is just about hockey and “eh?” at the end of sentences, read Taras Grescoe’s book Sacre Blues, An Unsentimental Journey Though Quebec (Toronto: Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 2000).  Quebec is a vast and singular nation-province in North America, about three times the size of Texas. Grescoe is a raucous guide through the history, politics, vice and culture of the largest French-speaking zone outside of L’Hexagone,  (the nickname for mainland France based on its shape). Consider this: Canada holds the world’s most extensive fresh water reserves at 8% of global supply and Quebec has 3% of global freshwater which makes the province a significant owner of the only strategic resource that humans really need to survive. Set aside Quebec’s gold, iron, lithium and other mineral resources because the gold of the future is water and Quebec is swimming in it.

No Vulgar Hotel                                                                                                                      
No Vulgar Hotel, The Desire and Pursuit of Venice (New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 2007) steers a delicious passage through Venice and its history, notorious characters,  gossip and manners.  Written by Miss Manners herself -- Judith Martin -- this travel book offers short passages grouped by theme (e.g. Venetian dogs, pirates kidnapping brides, street talk) or famous visitors (e.g. Napoleon, James Whistler, Hollywood movie stars).  The author’s highly refined sense of satiric fun and episodic structure makes this book a stress-free trip to Venice with a peerless companion.

Country Driving                                                                                                                        
 Peter Hessler’s Country Driving , A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory (New York: HarperCollins,  2010) is a solid front-runner among the many travel narratives exploring 21st century China.  With unsentimental clarity and sympathetic humor, Hessler shows off the country with snapshots and profiles of people in modern China. The chapter about getting a driver’s license in China is hilarious reading for anyone, but particularly so for me.  A few years ago, I took the same test and shared the excellent highways with earnest but unskilled drivers whose road training occurred on a bicycle. Get an eyeful of the future’s global boss through Hessler’s eyes and experience.  The long-time Beijing correspondent for the New Yorker was an early Peace Corps English teacher and he demonstrates superior awareness of China’s people and psychology.

Without a Paddle 

Who would race twelve hundred miles around Florida in a sea kayak and finish in 19 days?  Warren Richey did.  Without a Paddle (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010) successfully tells of a grueling, exciting water race around Florida, including a forty-mile portage across south Georgia to connect the St. Marys River and the Suwannee River. Talk about high risk:  competitors paddle for weeks south east from Tampa around the Everglades and north to Jacksonville, then tow a loaded sea kayak (on portable wheels) along shoulder-less roads where semis loaded with felled pine logs roar past, then they paddle several more days across the Gulf of Mexico back to Tampa.  A travel narrative about a race when days and nights summon the same watery vista could easily fail to enchant a reader, but Richey is an experienced reporter and heroic paddler. Even if you would never consider entering the Ultimate Florida Challenge,  feel the pressure of the race, painful physical fatigue and emotional upheaval through Richey’s fast paced prose.

We are midway through the Dog Days, at least according to the Roman Calendar.  What are you, where are traveling before reading. What do you read before traveling? Look for a few more posts of Dog Days Reads. Want to submit a list or guest blog on Dog Day's Reading Lists. Post here or send to 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What Does "Strengthening Your Prose" Really Mean?

by Graham Dunstan

This September marks the third fall I’ve had the pleasure to teach the “Strengthening Your Prose” course at The Writer’s Center. It’s a class for beginning to intermediate writers who want to practice the skills necessary for creating a story—fiction or nonfiction. And while the students are always diverse in skill level and interests in writing, there are a number of questions about prose that come up every class:

  • Are there strategies for finding time to write?
  • How do I know if what I want to write is a short story, a nonfiction essay, or something else?
  • Is there an easy way to tell where my story should begin or end?
  • How can I make my characters feel more real?

The course delves into these kinds of questions and goes deeper into the elements of writing that make up a good short story or nonfiction piece. But there are also a few general rules of thumb that come up repeatedly throughout the course.

Writing takes commitment. Writing is like going to the gym—a million small projects or things to do seemingly pop up, but you have to push all that away and make the commitment to work. For me, that’s turning off the television, putting the cell phone on silent, and really concentrating on those often excruciating first 15 minutes after opening the laptop. Surprisingly, just starting can be the hardest thing in the world sometimes. The good thing, though—further extending the gym metaphor—is that the more you challenge yourself and give it time, the better you get.

Remember that a first draft is just for you. Don’t let yourself get hung up in the early stages of a writing project—if you get stuck on a plot point then move on and come back later. The same thing for a scene that’s not working. And when you’ve just started a piece, don’t feel like you need to know if you’re writing a short story or a prose poem or nonfiction essay. The best way to write a nonfiction essay that doesn’t feel real: focusing too much in the early stages on the confines of the genre.

Read for enjoyment but practice also reading with a critical eye. Ask yourself why you love the short stories you love. Take a look at the memoir on your nightstand and try to uncover how the author wrapped you up in his or her story. It can be a revolutionary thing to really examine the work you love and see how authors and colleagues and classmates approach conflict, character, and point of view.

What these tips (and the questions that sparked them) all have in common is that they revolve around our love of writing and reading. Give yourself the time and patience to learn why writing means something to you. While the “Strengthening Your Prose” class will focus on this through the workshopping of student writing and the reading of selected contemporary short stories and nonfiction, you can also make a commitment to challenge yourself by writing more often and reading more thoughtfully.

Graham Dunstan is a fiction and memoir writer who has won numerous awards for his writing, including a Larry Neal Fiction Award for the District of Columbia, and fiction awards from Lullwater Review and Anchorage Daily News. He earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Alaska Anchorage, where he also taught composition. Graham has been published in The Signal, The Phoenix, Lullwater Review, We Alaskans, Creative Loafing, Anchorage Weekly, and on PlanetOut.

Monday, August 8, 2011

In The Fall He Comes Back : Humor and Inspiration From Robert Bausch

A shorter version of this interview appeared in the Fall 2011 Workshop & Event Guide. Bausch will lead one workshop at TWC this fall, The Art of Fiction.

By Caitlin Hill

Robert Bausch has taught in-person and online workshops with The Writer’s Center since 2004. Working with writers on their own fiction, Bob quickly developed a core group of repeat offenders who would knock the door down to register for his courses as soon as they opened. A few years in, he was persuaded to add a reading class to his offerings, and lead a workshop that read and examined some of the greatest short fiction America has seen: studying the rules preserved or broken, the tips and tricks that affect the story, and the art and craft of storytelling. Meanwhile, he was teaching courses at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), working on his own manuscripts including his most recent novel, In the Fall They Come Back, available now on Kindle, and encouraging several students in their various paths to publication, writing degrees, and teaching positions of their own, including Allison Leotta—with whom he will be reading at a 35th Anniversary Reading Series event on September 30.

Aside from being a fantastic mentor, teacher, and writer, Bob is a tremendously talented storyteller, and it is a joy to listen to him. In preparation for his upcoming reading, Bob has shared some words of wisdom and a bit of his own story with us. We are only able to print some of it here, but the full version can be found online (more details at the end of the piece). Be sure to get your tickets to Robert Bausch & Allison Leotta: Teacher/Student, where we will kick off our 35th anniversary. It’s only fitting that we launch this celebration with a man who embodies everything twc stands for: community, talent, dedication, encouragement, faith, openness, and an unfailing sense of humor.

Caitlin Hill: You drove a long way for many years to teach with us at The Writer’s Center, despite all the teaching you were also doing much closer to home. What kept you coming all this way (besides the allure of a good audio book)?

Robert Bausch: I took a sabbatical in 2004. I sat at home and wrote until 3 in the afternoon. I’d read until 7 or 8, with dinner in between. After 8, family time. Next day, everybody’s gone and I’d start writing again. Sometimes I’d finish at 2. Or 1. I never had so much time to write. I’d read for a few hours. Nobody home yet. I’d end up playing Madden NFL  football, just so I wouldn’t lose my mind. Some days, I never got out of my sweats. I had no classes for the first time in many, many years. I kept thinking of the expression: Be careful what you wish for. I thought I’d go nuts. Then Sunil called.

He wondered if I’d be willing to read from The Gypsy Man. I agreed, drove up for a reading with my brother Richard. After that reading Sunil asked if I’d be interested in teaching a workshop. I jumped at the chance. I wanted to get back into the classroom. ANY classroom. What I did not expect was the quality of the writing I’d see, the commitment and dedication of the students I’d work with.

After that first workshop, I was hooked. I worked with Michelle Brafman, Greg Lipscomb, Lisa Gschwandtner, Peirce Howard, Glen Finland, you, Tricia Gonzales, Jennifer Haupt, Anna El-Eini, Peter Brown, James Mathews, Solveig Eggers, Joram Piatagorsky, Rimas Blekaitis, Leslie Shwerin, Ann Cavazos, Jo Buxton, and so many others. They were all serious, talented, and terrific fun to work with. It was challenging, and exciting, and good for my own discipline. During my time at The Writer’s Center I wrote four novels: Out of Season, In the Fall They Come Back, The Legend of Jesse Smoke, and As Far as the Eye Can See. I was always working.

The drive was long, but I just couldn’t quit: to get a chance to work with such talent was like being in a great graduate program in writing, and not having to go to any committee or admissions and application meetings. If I hadn’t fallen asleep one evening on the way to NOVA, and crashed into the guy in front of me, I’d probably still be working there. But my family wanted me to stop working so hard, they worried about me, and I couldn’t have that. So I finally had to quit.

CH: There’s a push for writers these days to get a degree at an accredited university. I, myself, made that choice in 2007. TWC is not university-affiliated, and you don’t walk out of a class with a degree. So, what’s the appeal to taking a class at a place like this?

RB: I think it’s a great place to see if one is suited to a graduate program. It is so much like one, not because of the format, but because of the high caliber of writers who go there. I can’t vouch for the other classes, but mine were always full of really good, talented writers—folks who may not have been seasoned, but who were already making memorable fiction, and teaching me a thing or two about the art, students who were adept at criticism and tact. I rarely had any difficulty getting responses from everybody and most of those responses were valuable to the writer. I think the major appeal is that chance to get an immediate and highly astute response to one’s work before investing a fortune in a graduate program. It’s a way of finding out if such a course of study can be meaningful and useful. So many of my students have discovered the writing program is just what they want, and they’ve gone on to do graduate work: Michelle, Lisa, Tricia, you, Rimas, Ann, Rachel Swift. Others have gone on to publish: Michelle, Solveig, Peter Brown, James Mathews, Allison Leotta, Glen Finland, Anna El-Eini, and Greg Lipscomb, among others. Some come to the workshops having already completed an M.F.A., and get back to their work that way. I think it is an invaluable resource for writers at a fraction of the cost of an M.F.A. program.

CH: You have proven to be a prolific author, with six novels out and short stories aplenty. I also know you’re shopping around another manuscript or two. Does any of it get any easier? 

RB: For a mid-list writer like me, it can get damn hard. Harder in fact than it ever has been. Right now, I’m shopping three novels. I’ve published In the Fall They Come Back on Kindle, but I’m still looking for a publisher for it. I’ve got The Legend of Jesse Smoke making the rounds right now. I just finished As Far as the Eye Can See, and I’ve got my agent supposedly reading it; I don’t know what the progress of that is. I’m currently looking for a new agent, and when I find one, I’m going to start once again trying to find a new publisher. So no, at least in my case, it only gets harder. But that does not keep me from doing it. I’m a writer. It’s who and what I am. So I continue doing it, without calculating any sort of recompense. I don’t worry about that stuff except in my worst moments.

CH: Whom do you read when you need inspiration? Whom do you read simply for the pleasure of it?

RB: I think, except forsome poorly written freshman essays, almost all of the reading I do is for pleasure. I read six or seven books at once. Right now, I’m reading The Fire This Time, by Randall Kenan, Going Away Shoes, by Jill McCorkle, a book of Alan Shapiro’s poems called Old War, my brother’s most recent collection, Something Is Out There. I’m reading Shakespeare again, King Lear. I’m also reading a fascinating book called The Last Tsar, a collection of Nicholas and Alexandra’s correspondence as well as the memories of their contemporaries about their last years before the monarchy fell. I’m almost finished with Ruffian, a great little book about perhaps the greatest horse that ever stepped onto a race track. I just finished The Elegance of the Hedgehog. A fine book.

I read as many at once as I have time for because I know if I do, I won’t ever sound like anyone but myself when I sit down to write. Also, I simply love to read, and see no reason why I should limit myself to one book at a time. I would never limit myself to only one friend. When I am with my friends, I know essentially what’s happening in their lives. It’s the same with the books. I know when I pick up one of them where I am and what’s gone on before I got there. Some think themselves not capable of reading like this, but they really are; all they have to do is try it.

As far as inspiration, I get that from everything I observe, overhear, dream, think about, see in movies and television, or read in books. Almost any human thing has the capacity to move me and inspire me. I am especially and deeply moved by evidence of compassion in people, by a child’s purity of thought and action—good and bad. I am always aware when I witness a person thinking of people, rather than about them. When I’m not inspired, I work anyway. I never, NEVER wait for inspiration to work. Work is its own inspiration.

CH: Must we write every day?

RB: What I believe is: ANY day you write, even if the writing does not go well and you end up frustrated and defeated, is a GOOD day. It's perfectly okay to choose NOT to write on a given day, but it's better to plan those things, so you have complete control over your working life. When I don't write, I plan on not writing. Any day I have not planned to NOT write, I have to do it. I have to make it a good day. I have to make my work behave for me. I have to show up for it, and do it, good or bad. I have to do it for a significant span of time—to give the thing a chance. I have to be completely faithful to my work, without having allegiance to it; I may throw away everything I wrote on Wednesday on Thursday morning. I don't think I've wasted Wednesday if I do that.

You can't waste creative effort any more than you can waste good practice on an instrument, or hitting a tennis ball against a wall. You are working on your scales or your groundstroke and practicing. That's what you do when you show up to write. Practice.

CH: How do writing and teaching coexist in your life?

RB: They do co-exist, it's true. I almost never think about it, except when one gets in the way of the other. When I have a ton of papers to grade, and I frequently do, I plan on not writing for whole weeks so I can get the grading done. I sometimes end up having to read an entire novel I'm working on over again so I can recapture the tone of it for the next chapter. My whole career I've taught between six and eight classes a semester. I wonder sometimes how many books, how many short story collections I might have written if I had taught fewer classes each semester.

My twin brother Richard, who has taught one or two classes a semester most of his career has produced an extraordinary array of work—nine novels and seven or eight story collections. All of it—and I'm serious about this, ALL of it is truly fine work. Among the best fiction this country has ever produced. I doubt seriously if I would have done the same thing, but I think it's safe to say I might have written more books. But it's really useless to think about it. So I do my work and forget about what I can't change. Remember, when I DID have a lot of time to write, during my sabbatical, although I wrote Out of Season, and the first draft of In The Fall They Come Back, all in one semester, I also nearly went out of my mind.

CH: What do you think you would’ve done for a living if not teaching and writing?

RB: When I graduated from college I went to work for a financial institution as a collector. I was given the name Robert Davis. I worked in an office next to a dozen or so other folks with fake names. We called people on the phone and demanded they make a payment or some other arrangement to avoid further legal procedures. I worked that job two days. On the second day, I leaned over to the guy next to me and whispered, "I'll be right back." I got up, walked out and that was that. I never even collected a paycheck from that place.

Except for that job, all of the other non-teaching jobs I ever had, including the United States Air Force during the Vietnam War, I was asked to leave. The Air Force gave me an early out, everybody else fired me. I don't think I could have been very successful at anything in business. I often think I might have been a comedian. I sometimes feel as though I'm doing stand up in my college classes and a lot of what I teach comes with humor. But I don't know if I could have worked that life for very long and still had a family. I liked having a family. Still do.

My wife says I break the rules way too readily and easily. I don't pay much attention to authority and never have gotten along very well when I have to deal with authority figures. She thinks I'd have been trouble in almost any job and might have spent a lot of time going from one to the other until I broke some rule that got me in real trouble. I guess the truth is I might have landed in jail if I wasn't teaching and writing.

CH: What are some words of wisdom for a writer who feels stalled out, frustrated, untalented, in despair?

RB: We all feel that way at one time or another. What every writer needs is hope and belief. When I feel stalled or in despair, I just get back to work. Lower my standards and go on. If I find I can't do that, I'll turn off the monitor and write without seeing what's ending up on the screen. If I can't see it, I can't judge it. The main thing is you have to do the work.

The writer's life is doing the work. Everything else, even the publishing, is extraneous and counterproductive. Editing, doing book tours, giving readings, and so on—all the trappings that come with writing success—have nothing whatsoever to do with BEING a writer. People who have their books ghost written for them do all that stuff too, but they are not writers. No one who is doing that stuff is a writer. You're a writer when you write. As soon as you stop writing, you are no longer a writer.

You must read to feed the muse. Fill your head and heart. KNOW the world's voice and soul. I've never met a writer who was not a reader. I've met plenty of folks who say they want to be writers and don't read, but they are not writers, nor will they be—ever. Reading is ammunition. And one should read eclectically; biography and history, novels, poetry, drama, short stories, essays, science, law, the great classics. Everything you can get your hands on. You must KNOW one hell of a lot to be able to swell a scene; you don't want to say, "Across the way some trees bent in the wind." They better be sycamores, or hickories, or willows. All of the concrete detail of every work comes from what the writer KNOWS as much as from what the WRITER imagines.

That knowledge comes with reading. It goes in there and waits, in quiet repose, for when you are struggling to find the image you want. You don't go around like Cliffy the Postman TELLING everybody what you know, but you have it in you for the writing. It comes out in surprising ways, sometimes without your calling for it. Your reading should feed your work in subtle ways like that; not so you can show it off in the writing, but so it comes out in the engineering of a story or a situation in a story.

Robert Bausch was born in Georgia, at the end of World War II, and was raised in the Washington, D.C., area. He was educated at George Mason University, earning a B.A., an M.A., and an M.F.A., and he says he has been a writer all his life. He spent time in the military teaching survival, and worked his way through college. Since 1975, Bausch has been a college professor, teaching creative writing, American literature, world literature, humanities, philosophy, and expository writing. He has taught at the University of Virginia, American University, George Mason University, The Johns Hopkins University, and The Writer’s Center. For the balance of his career he has been teaching at Northern Virginia Community College. He has also been a director on the board of the Pen Faulkner Foundation. In 2009 he was awarded the John Dos Passos Prize in Literature.— Written by James Gilford for