Archives For Gertrude Stein

“…my fellow writers in the SUNY Albany writing program…
pushed me over the ledge into a free fall where I found my voice,
which involves treating every new story as a brand new thing
which deserves its own brand new way of being told.”


Ron MacLean is author of the novels Headlong (2013) and Blue Winnetka Skies (2004) and the story collection Why the Long Face? (2008). His fiction has appeared in GQ, Fiction International, Best Online Fiction 2010, and elsewhere.

He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He teaches at Grub Street in Boston.

Web site:

Featured at Talking Writing: This interview is part of a partnership with Talking Writing magazine. The How to Become a Writer Series here at PhD in Creative Writing now includes interviews with Talking Writing’s featured writers. Here is an excerpt of Ron’s most recent TW essay, “Literary Criticism Is Dead“:

I love literature and believe it has a future. I hope serious criticism does, too. But we’ll only be able to attain that future by accepting the reality of the present.

The study of literature is dying, partly because of self-inflicted wounds. I’m happy to debate all the reasons why: the dominance of an elite school of mostly white, male academics; increased theoretical abstraction; easy-to-mock “littray” pronouncements.

But my focus here is more basic: Literary criticism has become irrelevant—the neglected lima beans on the cultural dinner plate. In order for criticism to matter, literature has to matter. It doesn’t, and it won’t again soon, at least not in the same way it did for a hundred-plus years of its history. [Read the rest here at Talking Writing.]

41OjyYGtpSL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Read more by and about Ron:

Novel/Literary Thriller: Headlong

Stories: Why the Long Face

A cowboy-movie novel: Blue Winnetka Skies

Story: “The Night Dentist”

Essay: “Is Fiction Empathy’s Best Hope” at Talking Writing

Essay: “Literary Criticism Is Dead” at Talking Writing

How Ron MacLean Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Ron for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

As far back as I can remember, stories have been the way I’ve understood the world. Reading stories gave me insights I craved, and writing them gave me a way to understand my own perceptions and experiences.

I started out as a journalist. And I love journalism. Especially investigative journalism. But I probably should have recognized my fate back in high school, when I told a friend as I complained about an assignment for journalism class, “the story would have been much better if I wasn’t limited to the facts.”

cover-blue-skies_large2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

In the beginning I was self-educated, and that’s continued to be a huge aspect of my learning. I read a lot, and I re-read work that moves me. Again and again. I’d puzzle at it trying to figure out what made it touch me. I’d trace an evocative sentence at the end of a short story back through the text, looking for where its power originated. And then I’d try to do the same.

Once I left journalism, I applied to grad school and ended up getting a Doctor of Arts from SUNY Albany. The community of writers and teacher I met there finally made me a writer. We formed each other.

3. Who helped you along the way, and how?

Wow. So, so many. I could go on forever. I’ll focus on a few.

Writers whose work I’ve read and studied, whose words now live in me and helped shape me. I’ll name some, but there are many more: Flannery O’Connor, Rick Bass, Jeanette Winterson, Donald Barthelme, Gertrude Stein, Marilynne Robinson. Four books that literally changed my life: Robinson’s Housekeeping, Stein’s Tender Buttons, Barthelme’s 40 Stories, and O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners.

Teachers and mentors who not only taught me aspects of the craft, but taught me through their commitment to the work (the joy of it, the value of it) and to their fellow writers: Gene Garber, Judy Johnson, Don Schatz.

cover-long-face_largeMaybe most significantly for me were my fellow writers in the SUNY Albany writing program, where we learned, and taught each other, that we are part of the same tribe, and that we each only thrive as we help each other thrive. They gave me permission to stop trying to hew to a “classic” short story style that didn’t match the stories I wanted to tell. Another way to put it was they pushed me over the ledge into a free fall where I found my voice, which involves treating every new story as a brand new thing which deserves its own brand new way of being told. I’ll always be grateful for the community that held me safe as I explored that new territory (especially Lori Anderson Moseman and Jan Ramjerdi), and for the learning that we are each other’s best resource. That’s something I try to live everywhere I go; it’s part of what I value now at Boston’s Grub Street.

4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

Absolutely. While it’s a tossup between O’Connor and Stein, I’ll go with Flannery. Writing did not come easily to her. It mattered enough to her to persist through physical (as well as emotional) pain and illness. And it was, for her, a means to grope toward an understanding of the mystery that lies beyond daily life. She always sought to convey an experience of mystery in her stories, and at the same time was ruthless about the necessity of representing life in honest and real physical detail. That desire, that commitment, has been a major inspiration for me. She and I work differently in many ways, but we share a desire to get beyond the daily to explore what we would both define as the mystery at the heart of human experience.

5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Love what you do. Delight in the work, and let that be your primary joy. Don’t let the business side of it discourage you. If writing matters to you, do it with everything you’ve got, and don’t worry about how many people read it.

…I only read classics, especially 19 th and early 20th century novels. The longer the better. Dickens, Austen, Wharton, Zola, Thackery, Hardy . This was how I wanted to write – long novels, a ton of description, metaphors, and intricate plots. But I couldn’t write like that, which is why I always felt like a failure.

Jen McConnell has just had her debut collection of short stories, Welcome, Anybody, published by Press 53. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College and undergraduate degree from the University of California, Irvine. Her short stories have been published in numerous literary magazines across the country. Originally from California, she currently makes her home on the Lake Erie shore with her husband, daughter, and pugs. She is currently working on a novel.

Web page:

Read more by and about Jen:

Book: Welcome, Anybody
Short Story: “Shakespeare’s Garden”
Short Story: “What We Call Living”

How Jen McConnell Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Jen for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer? 

I don’t remember a specific moment where I decided to become a writer. But I remember very clearly when I decided I did NOT want to be a writer.

Like most writers, I was an avid reader as a kid. I picture myself being born with a book in my hand and being annoyed at the doctor for interrupting my reading. Reading and going to school were my escapes from everything unpleasant in life.

I read everything I could get my hands on. I remember in middle school going to our tiny branch library two or three times a week and having trouble selecting something because I’d read every book in the Young Adult section. That’s when I got hooked on Stephen King and Agatha Christie.

I never really thought about books being written. It sounds silly and I knew that an author wrote books, but to me, books just were. They appeared in the library (my family rarely bought books) and I gave no thought to how they arrived there.

I wrote stories in high school for English classes and enjoyed it. I wrote your average awful teenage angsty poetry but it wasn’t until college that I had some vague idea that I wanted to write. Not BE a writer but just write.

Sophomore year, I wrote an O. Henry type story and sent it into a contest. It was rejected. That’s when I thought, “Nope, not for me. I obviously have no talent and should just give up now.”  So I did.

After college, I moved from southern California to Washington, D.C. and back. In between I married my college sweetheart. There was hardly enough time to read books much less write them. We constantly worried about employment and money. I dabbled a bit here and there, keeping journals, writing down ideas, but didn’t write any fiction.

When I was 25, married and living in Sacramento, CA, I decided, ok, now I am going to be a writer. I was unemployed again so I had some time. I told people I was a writer. I had a ‘big idea’ for a novel and spent months outlining the novel, writing character sketches, etc. but not actually writing any of the novel.

A year later, I got divorced and moved westward to San Francisco. I didn’t know anybody in the city but had a job and a room in an apartment. I decided two things for my new life: 1) I couldn’t call myself a writer unless I actually writing something and 2) I was going to do three things that scared me the most: play a team sport, speak in front of a group of people, and take a fiction writing class.

Volleyball was a total bust. I was as bad at team sports as a grown up as I was as a kid. I took an acting class where I discovered that yes, I am still petrified of speaking in front of people, so I kept forgetting my lines.

But that fiction writing class? The universe smiled on me for that one. It’s a long story so I will just say if it wasn’t for that class – and that teacher – I would not be a writer.

"...the scales falling from my eyes - Raymond Carver."

2. How did you go about becoming a writer? 

I wrote and wrote and wrote some more. I still didn’t believe that I had any talent but within the structure of a class, I had no trouble churning out pages. By the end of a year I had a basic, and very terrible, first draft of a novel.

I also began to read contemporary writers. I am embarrassed to say it but it is true – during college and after, right up until that first fiction writing class I only read classics, especially 19 th and early 20th century novels. The longer the better. Dickens, Austen, Wharton, Zola, Thackery, Hardy . This was how I wanted to write – long novels, a ton of description, metaphors, and intricate plots. But I couldn’t write like that, which is why I always felt like a failure.

The teacher, the writer Lewis Buzbee, introduced me to the works of Joan Didion, Richard Ford, Alice Munro and – the scales falling from my eyes – Raymond Carver. I’m not comparing myself to Raymond Carver but his deceptively simple prose showed me a different way to tell a story. A way that didn’t need fancy metaphors or convoluted plots. And – another revelation – I could write short stories. I didn’t have to write novels.

I didn’t call myself a writer, however. Now that I was reading amazing contemporary writers, there was no way I could call myself that.

I studied with Lewis for another two years, until – with his encouragement and guidance – I was accepted into Goddard College’s MFA program. Again, the universe knew what it was doing. Goddard was/is a crazy place but it was exactly what I needed when I needed it.

It was toward the end of my first year that I began to call myself a writer. I realized that the definition of a writer is one who writes. It is as simple as that.

And while I still didn’t think I was any good (I had published one story at that point, but assumed it was a fluke), I never stopped writing. I thought maybe I could fool people into forgiving the quality if I overloaded them with quantity.

3. Who helped you along the way, and how? 

Of course the most influence and helpful along the way was Lewis Buzbee. It wasn’t just that he was a great teacher and mentor, but that he was also a working writer. And a great one at that.

Lewis Buzbee

Obviously the program at Goddard, especially two of my professors, the writers Tara Ison and Rebecca Brown. They pushed me hard enough to make me better but in an encouraging manner that made me want to keep going and not give up.

Another huge support was my boyfriend, then fiancé, then ex-fiancé who helped me financially during grad school AND provided me with so much angst material.

My writing friends from Goddard and beyond, and other friends who have always believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself.

My husband, Dan Doron. Besides the obvious, the best thing he does is just listens when I give my “that’s it, it’s hopeless, I can’t write, I’m giving up” rant. And he never says “I told you so” when I pick up my pen the next day.

4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you? 

Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf definitely. A Room of One’s Own was life-changing. I had read it in college, but because I didn’t think of myself as a writer, it didn’t resonate. Reading it again during grad school motivated me even more. Neither of these women did what they were ‘supposed’ to do, damn the consequences. Their courage inspires me always.

I admire and envy writers, or any artist really, that does what they need to do for their craft. In other words – be completely selfish for their art. Unfortunately, it’s a double-edged sword. Woolf, Hemingway, Pollack – gave themselves completely to their art but they didn’t exactly live happy lives.

Recently, when I was scraping wallpaper off a bedroom wall so I could repaint it, I thought “I bet Hemingway never in his life scraped wallpaper.” I had just finished The Paris Wife by Paula McLain so I was thinking about Papa and the devastation that his selfishness wrecked on everyone around him. But look at his writing – his gift to all of us.

I thought, "I bet Hemingway never in his life scraped wallpaper."

Sometimes I want to be that selfish – to live like I did during grad school – work enough just to pay rent so I can spend ten hours a day writing. But then I look at my family.  Writing is like breathing to me, but life wouldn’t be worth living without them.

If that means I will never be a great writer, so be it. I have an amazingly family who support my writing. It doesn’t get better than that.

5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Don’t give up. You will want to, many times over. Some of your friends and family may not support that decision, seeing how crazy writing makes you but don’t give in.

Keep writing. Keep reading. Keep thinking about writing. Take breaks – sure. But if you are truly a writer, it’s not something you can abandon for long. Those words, ideas, stories will find a way to seep out.

I know it’s hard, believe me I do. But you can’t give up.

Acknowledge that your writing may never be published in the manner you think it should be. It’s not about publishing; it’s about writing.

You know that saying “Dance as if no one is watching”? Write as if no one is reading.

Why do you write?

January 21, 2011 — 1 Comment

At the end of my interview at Talking Writing, I was asked to ask a question for the next writer who would be interviewed. I asked, “Why do you write? Not how or when or with what technological device, but why?” (Worried that my question sounded a bit aggressive, I offered an alternative: “Where do you stand on the subject of Gertrude Stein?”)

I conceived of the question in the context of, What would I most want to talk about with another writer? Like, if we were getting coffee, what would I want to talk about? Because what usually happens when you have coffee or a meal with a writer is you talk about do you know this person and how did it go when you got published there and did they really screw such and such up so badly on your new book? Even when you get together with friends who are writers you talk about how do you like your job and do you think you’ll have another baby and you didn’t tell me you got another story published and when can we get together and have a cosmo? (Over cosmos, you talk about the same topics.)

“To write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write”

So I asked that question as a way of cutting to the heart of the heart of the matter. But then on the first day of class last week, a graduate student in my creative nonfiction workshop asked me point blank, and apropos of nothing, Why do you write?

I was on teacher mode. I was on first night of class mode, first impressions mode, still kinda on break mode, and on what are all your names and what are you expecting from this course mode. So I stalled a bit by saying, wow, great question! I asked the same question at the end of an interview!

And it is a great question, and I really didn’t want to blow it off, but I was really unprepared to answer it. I babbled a bit in reply. It was genuine, but it was babble. (Certainly one reason I write is that I suck at talking.) The students, of course, were eminently articulate as they went around the room and introduced themselves and said they wrote to make sense of things, to share their stories, to figure something out, to make people laugh, and even to improve upon the bad writing they’ve seen published.

I’ve been around the literary block, so these are wonderful as well as familiar reasons, and they speak to my own reasons in some cases, but they also are not quite what I was trying to say. I’ve been trying to figure it out for almost two weeks, why I write. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

I write because:

1. It’s an act of contemplation and resistance.
Everything else in this life is anti-contemplative, and everything pulls everyone like a muscular wave in the same direction. When you look at the long shore line, you can hardly tell how far away you’ve been carried. And when you do figure it out, you can start swimming against the cultural current, but you won’t get back where you were. You’ll probably just get exhausted and drown. Writing is an anchor that makes you both aware of the pull and (a bit more) resistant to its power.

"It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing."

I don’t know if my metaphor is holding up, so I’ll abandon that ship to say simply that writing demands concentration and contemplation. Universities call it critical thinking. But creative writing is critical thinking with a different kind of stakes. It’s more personal, and thus more powerful. It’s also more mysterious, which also makes it more powerful – like it’s got the gods on its side.

2. La- la- la- language. STOP
Language is used to persuade and entertain and persuade and entertain and it never seems to end whether it’s email or twitter or TV or more TV or phone calls or spam or your child’s principal or your child or your child’s friend calling your child or texting your child or your child texting you or your child asking what’s for dinner, which is neither persuasive nor entertaining.

"Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense."

I think of literary language as language that uses language differently. And more importantly it acts like the command on a telegram: STOP. It is written, for one, so it acts as an object or artifact for study. It can be read and reread, looked at with a microscope or from a different angle. It doesn’t just dissolve into nothing. To really encounter it, one must stop. Read. Reread.

But lots of things are written and can be reread. Literary writing demands a settling in, an attention, a different posture of the reader as well as the writer. The writer is saying, STOP, achtung, baby. Here’s a different way of using language, here’s a story you haven’t heard, an image you haven’t imagined, and it will strengthen your brain muscle and your heart muscle.

3. The Big Bang Theory
I’m having a classic writer’s dilemma: my title for this section is not really accurate, but it feels right and I want to keep it. I’m thinking of the explosive, intensive, expansive experience of creation – of creating. That feeling when the brain makes its shift from left to right, when you’ve been tunneling through the darkness and land upon…er, coal? Well, whatever it is you were tunneling for.

"If you knew it all it would not be creation but dictation."

The Big Bang as a term connotes explosions and beginnings, and it’s practically onomatopoetic, but I think I’m talking about a more active, old testament, Genesis, Let There Be Light kind of thing: And there was evening and there was morning.

And it was good.