Archives For peek behind the curtain

1. Let’s get straight to it. The number one highlight of the Southern Kentucky Book Fest was this:


That’s right, I got to hang out with two of my favorite people and authors: Molly McCaffrey (left) and David Bell (right).

2. And I might have gotten to meet this guy:

(He’s standing next to the tall girl in red above. The tall girl makes everyone look shorter than they are. The tall girl apologizes to The Fonz.)

Seriously, Henry Winkler was super friendly and charming. He hugged my friend Molly and told her how much he loves her personality. We bonded over New York / New Jersey connections.

3. I met three overeducated country boys who brew some damn fine IPA over at Country Boy Brewing:


(Seriously, these guys make great beer, and they majored in things like English and History. They have Master’s Degrees! Yes.)

4. I was assigned an awesome boothmate: Sharon Short

downloadSharon’s new book is My One Square Inch of Alaska, and I’m excited to read my new copy! She also agreed to participate in my interview series, so more about Sharon to come…


5. Dinner and gossip with the amazing Eric Goodman and Lee Martin, authors of these awesome books that I just bought:


I sold some books! My attention has been on my forthcoming book, Liliane’s Balcony, due out in the fall, so it was great to talk to people about For Sale By Owner again.

As I drove home I passed a trucker who honked at me. This has not happened to me for years, so I looked in my rearview mirror and saw that he was holding up a sign in his front window that said, “M O M.” I thought, “Geez, how did you know? Is it that obvious?” But when I glanced back again, he had turned the sign over. It now said: “W O W.”
(Oh my!)


June 6, 2012 — 1 Comment

Center for Book Arts work room.

Today I was in NYC for the first of a 5-day Letterpress Printing & Publishing Seminar for Emerging Writers at the Center for Book Arts. Here’s a sampling of what we did. We’re all newbies to letterpress.

Vandercook Press

We all set our names in different type faces and prepared for printing.

Making a print.

The print!

In celebration/preparation for my forthcoming book set at Fallingwater (Liliane’s Balcony), I am volunteering be an Ask-Me Guide at Fallingwater. I attended an orientation in April, and this week I volunteered two days.

Tuesday was my first day, and it was high drama from the time I arrived at 10 a.m. The front desk was short-handed, there was a woodpecker trapped in the Visitors’ Center, and busloads of fourth-graders were arriving for their field trips. The kids, of course, were fascinated by the trapped woodpecker, which thought it could fly through the glass panel and was clearly bewildered each time it smacked into glass. One boy proudly told me that he’d raised baby robins after the mother bird abandoned them. A maintenance guy was called, and he managed to clutch the woodpecker briefly between two long duster puffs and eventually direct the bird out of the area – to great applause from the fourth graders.

You can’t see the woodpecker, but the person in yellow is looking right at it, moments before its escape/liberation.

The lone Info Desk person was a mastermind at the Fallingwater command center. Somehow, amid fourth-graders, trapped birds, new membership applications, and visitors who wanted to avoid fourth-graders, she managed to speak to each new visitor, assign them a tour group, and send a group on its tour every 6 minutes.

My job was very simple: assemble the tour groups, count the number of people in the group, and tell them how to get to the house – and I still managed to screw up. A group that was supposed to have 14 only had 12, but someone said two more were coming. I could see them coming so I said, “Great! Here’s how you get to the house.” And as they walked past me toward the house, I counted 16 people – too many for one group. But it was too late. This happened a couple times. It’s times like these that you think you should probably just turn your Ph.D. over to the person at the Info Desk, who is clearly smarter and more competent than you in every way.

Things calmed down eventually, and I was able to have an amazing lunch in the cafe: an apple, butternut squash, and brie panini with couscous!

But when I returned, there was a sudden and huge downpour/storm. A young French family had their tour postponed and the little girls ran around the sheltered area for a half hour. I watched people run to the center in the rain and handed out umbrellas for trips back to the parking lot.

In my days at Fallingwater, I saw school kids of various ages, families from France, the Middle East, the Far East, the US South, and even an Amish group. I talked to a couple from North Carolina (Wright aficionados), a student who asked if the visitors’ center was the house, and a woman who was at Fallingwater to celebrate her 50th birthday. She celebrated her 40th on a mountain in Alaska. And I met all the amazing people who work and volunteer at Fallingwater.

In the epigraph to my forthcoming book, I quote Frank Lloyd Wright: “The rock ledges of a stone quarry are a story and a longing to me.”

I love that quote, and this week at Fallingwater I kept thinking that Fallingwater itself is a story and a longing. Everyone at Fallingwater has a story and a longing, and I loved having contact with so many of them.

Find a community. You’re in this together.
You’re in this alone.
Be patient.
It takes time to arrive at the right word, the story.
The moment of elation.

DONNA MISCOLTA is the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced (Signal 8 Press, June 2011). Her story collection Natalie Wood’s Fake Puerto Rican Accent was a finalist for the 2010 Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction. Her work has appeared in America’s Review, Calyx, Cha: An Asian Literary Review, Connecticut Review, Kartika Review, New Millennium Writings, Raven Chronicles, Conversations Across Borders, and others. She has been awarded residencies from Anderson Center, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Hedgebrook, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She has received numerous grants and awards, including the Bread Loaf/Rona Jaffe Scholarship for Fiction.

Web Page:

Read more by and about Donna:

Novel: When the de la Cruz Family Danced

Excerpt of novel at Cha: “A Month in the Tropics”

Short Essay: “Home Is Where the Wart Is

Story at Conversations Across Borders: “Fleeing Fat Allen” (proceeds go to VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts)

How Donna Miscolta 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 until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Donna for saying yes!

1.     Why did you want to become a writer?

The desire to be a writer went unacknowledged by me for much of my life. I had always been a reader and had a reverence for writers. Books were magical and writers were wizards. I thought that you didn’t become a writer. You simply were a writer. Anointed or ordained. Though all through school I did well when it came to writing, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I never said writer. Writing was hard. Not hard in the way math was for me ─ the abstraction of it, the way numbers refused to form a language in my head. I felt comfortable with words, but choosing the right ones and arranging them in the best order – that was hard. I thought that to be a writer, writing had to come easy. So I never considered it an option to pursue.

In an almost willful defiance of logic I studied science, obtaining a degree in zoology. I followed up with a master’s degree in education and later one in public administration, trying to figure out what and who to be in life. At age 39, I was employed in the public sector, twelve years married, deeply entrenched in parenthood, and busy as hell, yet, looking for that thing to round out my life. Finally, I acknowledged it — my fascination with words and sentences and how they come together to make stories, my desire and need to play with words on my own, to knit them into narratives, to be a writer.

Trailer for When the de la Cruz Family Danced:

2.     How did you go about becoming a writer?

In July 1993, I attended a reading by Kathleen Alcalá, whom I knew from our membership in the local chapter of a national Latina organization. The reading was on the University of Washington campus, which I had recently learned offered extension classes in creative writing. Hearing Kathleen, someone I actually knew, read a story from a book she had written, inspired me to consider the possibility that I, too, might write a story.

As it turned out, I took one of the last open spots for the fall extension class. My teacher that quarter was Jack Remick. I knew nothing about how to write a story. Yet, I, along with many of my classmates, was resistant at first to the diagrams Jack would draw on the board and his requirement that our stories have an intruder. We thought he was trying to force a formula on us and we, by golly, weren’t going to be formulaic. We were going to be original! What we came to understand was that he was trying to teach us about tension and action and conflict ─ in other words, story.

The much loved and highly esteemed Rebecca Brown was my teacher for the next two quarters. I began to feel more confident about writing. From the time I started this series of classes, I developed the habit of writing every evening after my daughters were in bed. I wrote on the bus to work and during my lunch hour. I wrote while waiting for my kids to finish soccer practice or swim lessons.

As my daughters got older, it became more feasible for me to spend time away from home and I applied to writing conferences. My first was the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, which exposed me to a lot of established writers and people like me wanting to be writers. Over the years, I’ve been able to experience the Napa Valley, VONA, and Bread Loaf conferences. I took Tom Jenks’ four-day intensive workshop. And I’ve attended multiple times the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, a few hours away from me on the Olympic Peninsula. Program director and poet Jordan Hartt puts together a wonderful conference.

I’ve also set aside time for intensive periods of writing at residencies. Hedgebrook, Anderson Center, Atlantic Center for the Arts, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts are among the places that have generously provided time and space, and in some cases, money for me to write.

I read books and articles on craft, but mostly I’ve just continued to be a reader of the things I want to write – novels and stories. Despite my science degree, I’m not a particularly analytical person. I suppose if I had done an MFA program I would’ve developed skills at analyzing fiction. Instead I just read and enjoy and hope that at some level I absorb something of craft from the writers I admire – Antonya Nelson, Francine Prose, Lorrie Moore, Jessica Hagedorn and Ana Castillo, to name a few.

The first book I read by Nelson was Nobody’s Girl. After that I was hooked on her writing. Prose’s Blue Angel and Guided Tours of Hell are among my favorite books, Moore’s stories seldom fail with me, and Dogeaters by Hagedorn and So Far From God by Castillo electrify with their language and humor. In fact, language and humor – sly, unforced, intelligent ─ are what draws me to all these writers.

Finally, getting feedback and really listening, letting go of any need for approval or praise, has been important in my growth as a writer. I’ve been in three writing groups. Each time one dissolved I was lucky enough to find another. I have a fantastic set of readers in the members of my current writing group: Alma Garcia, Allison Green, and Jennifer D. Munro.

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

Early on I received crucial support that allowed me to believe that I was a writer. I’d been writing for a couple of years daily, diligently, and more or less in isolation when I was invited to be part of Los Norteños, a group of Latino writers that was just beginning to form. We did writing exercises, critiqued each other’s work, and organized readings. It was my first writing community. Then, and I’m not sure how I happened upon them, I found resources for artists. I applied to and was accepted for a residency at Hedgebrook, a place that nurtures the soul and opens the mind and inspires you to write like mad.

That year I also received a generous grant, a powerful vote of faith, from the Seattle Arts Commission, and I was selected to participate in the first Jack Straw Writers Program, which exposes writers’ work through audio and live readings. Support such as this went a long way in counteracting the inevitable bouts of self-doubt.

Unable to pursue an MFA, I cobbled together my own writing education through conferences and workshops. Though I spent only a short time – a few days to a couple of weeks – with each of these teachers, I adored them: Lynn Freed, Bret Lott, Chris Abani, Antonya Nelson, Tom Jenks and, most recently, Paisley Rekdal. Each taught me something about writing and being a writer. A piece of advice I refer to over and over is this Cynthia Ozick quote passed on by Tom Jenks in his class: Play what feeble notes you can and keep practicing.

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

When I think about the books I read when I was growing up, these are the authors that come to mind: Louisa May Alcott, Daphne Du Maurier, William Faulkner, Frank Norris, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, and Jane Austen – authors worlds removed from a Filipina-Mexican-American growing up in National City, California. The only living (at the time) author that I can recall reading back then was Richard Brautigan, introduced by a student teacher in my high school English class.  Except for Fear of Flying in college, my reading repertoire would not encompass contemporary works for a few more years. It was as if I believed books existed only by long-dead writers.

So in the interim between Erica Jong and Carlos Fuentes (and the other Latin American as well as Latino and Asian and Asian-American authors whose works I would eventually seek out), I committed myself to Virginia Woolf. I was in my twenties, post-college, and missing the debate and discussion about feminism that took place in the classrooms and the commons. I wasn’t sure how one lived feminism in the world. The Voyage Out was the first of Woolf’s novel I read.

Here was a woman so removed from my life in time, place, and class, yet I connected to her words, the finely wrought sentences that paid attention to the small moments that were so ordinary and yet held such heft and meaning. I was drawn to her focus on the female consciousness, the journey from cloistered existence to intellectual freedom and independence from social strictures. I didn’t read all her works, but many of them: To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, The Years, A Room of One’s Own, Between the Acts.

I’ve only reread a few since then. But if the details of those works have not stayed with me the feeling of them has – the way she captured time, its fleetingness. Her life and character are so well-known – her fragility and her strength. The madness. But what matters most was the art, which has inspired other art – like movies. And I will always, always prefer Eileen Atkins’s portrayal of Virginia Woolf to Nicole Kidman’s.

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

Be patient. Expect rejection.

Accept that you’ll feel envy, frustration, defeat.

Move on. Focus on your work.

Develop your characters.

Develop your character.

No one owes you publication.

When you can’t sell one story, write another.

There’s luck involved ─ good and bad.

Find a community. You’re in this together.

You’re in this alone.

Be patient.

It takes time to arrive at the right word, the story.

The moment of elation.

Sarah Domet
is the author of 90 Days to Your Novel (Writer’s Digest Books). Her fiction and nonfiction appears or is forthcoming in Talking Writing, New Delta Review, Cincinnati Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Potomac Review, Harpur Palate, and Many Mountains Moving.  She holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature and fiction from the University of Cincinnati, and teaches in the Department of Writing & Linguistics at Georgia Southern University.

Visit her web site:

Read more by and about Sarah:

Sarah’s Five-Star Story, “To Write a Romance”
Talking Writing: Library Love Letter
Writer’s Digest Author Q&A
Story, “The Shape of a Heart” at New Delta Review

How Sarah Domet Became a Writer

This is the first installment in the new How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer will answer the same 5 questions that Sarah answers here. Many thanks to Sarah Domet for being my first victim!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

As a kid, I was extremely shy—so shy, in fact, that in first grade or so, my teacher sent me to the school’s speech therapist to see if she could tap into the underlying “problem.”  I vividly recall sitting next to this stranger on the plaid couch in her office (her “office” was actually in a trailer in the school’s parking lot).  She smelled like cigarettes.

“Why won’t you talk in class?” she asked me in that soft adult-speaking-to-child voice.  I looked at her, shrugged my shoulders.  Quite simply, I enjoyed observing the details in the world around me.  I was shy not because I didn’t have anything to say—but because I sometimes had too much to say.

Writing, back then, was my outlet—my way of interpreting and understanding my own experiences. (Of course, I didn’t tell her that. My shrug seemed to suffice for the moment.) And though in class I could barely find my voice to stammer the “Pledge of Allegiance” when it was my turn to lead, in my fiction I could be anyone and do anything.  Writing empowered me.

Flannery O'Connor becoming a writer

Flannery O’Connor once said: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”  This idea really resonates with me—but not because I want to write about my childhood.  Rather, there seems to be a distinct parallel between my reasons for wanting to become a writer and the curiosity that prompts a child (or, at least, prompted me as a child) to ask questions about the world:  Where do I fit in?  Why do good people sometimes do bad things?  What is the nature of love? Why the heck are we here?   These were the questions I explored as a kid through my first attempts at writing—and ones I still, to some extent, address in my fiction.

In the end, I suppose I want to write because I’m curious about the world.  I want to explore subjects I find interesting. I want to imagine what it’s like to be someone else—what’s the psychology involved?  What makes people tick?

Or, maybe I have an extra self-indulgence gene (somewhere next to my hypersensitivity gene) in my DNA. Growing up, my parents always taught me to do what I love—and so I do.  (A real rule follower, I am.)

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I’ve always been a bit impractical.  And, luckily, impracticality can go a long way toward helping a young writer sustain the notion that her love of literature can pay the bills.  A bit of self-delusion goes a long way.  I somehow convinced myself that my writing was strong enough to warrant all those gratuitous years of graduate school while my more practical friends were building careers and families.

Margaret Atwood, The Edible Woman

I originally applied to graduate school based almost entirely on my love of reading.  I was an idealist of the highest order in regards to what I thought literature could “do” for the world.  More than anything, I loved reading and analyzing what I’d read.  I loved picking apart texts, or trying to figure out why the author made the particular choices he or she did.  I loved the wisdom some of my favorite novels or stories or poems imparted—like a riddle the reader had to figure out, line by line. [Editor’s note: Check out the images for some of Sarah’s favorite reads.]

I went about becoming a writer by becoming a reader first.  Really, I don’t think the two activities—writing and reading—can be separated.  When I first entered graduate school, I did so without a clue that I’d end up studying creative writing.  (At that point, writing was still my dirty little secret—what I did in the privacy of my tiny apartment.)

Little by little, I learned from the writers I studied; I began to mimic what I liked best in the work of authors I admired the most.  Some of it was awful—but apprentices first learn through the art of imitation.  Then I enrolled in my first fiction writing workshop.  There I was, suddenly out in the open talking about my own writing, my choices, my craft. I understood the first step toward becoming a writer was admitting it. I found it difficult to take those first teetering steps toward calling myself a writer.  But it was liberating when I finally did.

Italo Calvino, "The Distance of the Moon"

Graduate school also provided me my first experience teaching writing—though I had no clue that I even wanted to teach.  (Luckily it was a requirement, not a choice.) The law of kinetics, the one that says something like “a body in motion stays in motion,” applies here: Teaching writing lead to more thinking about writing, which lead to conversations with others about writing, which lead to more writing, and so on.

Grad school helped me with the forward momentum necessary for my work.  However, it’s easy to be a writer in graduate school when you’re living in a cloistered environment of writers, where all the cool kids are doing it.  It’s more difficult to be a writer in the real world.  There, you’re more accountable to yourself.  You have to find your own forward momentum and self-discipline.

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

Although I absolutely do not believe one must go to graduate school to be a writer, I do believe that such an experience helps one find an instant community of writers that’s really quite invaluable.  What an asset—a true indulgence—to constantly talk about the craft of writing, writers, novels, poetry, etc.

I was lucky to have the mentorship of some amazing professors, one in particular, who took my writing seriously, and, in turn, caused me to take my own writing seriously.  You don’t know how much it meant to be asked questions about my fiction, to have entire conversations about my writing and my ideas. Those early words of encouragement were huge for me.

Lorrie Moore, Self-Help

I also give my “writer friends” serious credit for teaching me how to balance my writing life and my life-life.  I’m continually impressed by friends who juggle jobs, children, pets, social lives, gardening, intramural kick-ball leagues, and a hundred other things with writing. They’ve taught me that it’s not easy to be responsible for kids or do laundry or grade student work all day—then get back to the writing desk. It takes a lot of self-discipline and will power.  I don’t think this aspect of “the writing life” is discussed often enough.  How do you sustain creativity while shopping for toothpaste or folding laundry?

Meeting emerging and established writers over the years has also given me some perspective.  It’s easy to cast writers as a “type” and then try to live up to this typecasting.  The writers I’ve met weren’t these chaotic, moody, destructive beings.  They didn’t all wear horn-rimmed glasses and jackets with elbow patches (though some did).  Mostly they were normal folks with rather mundane, predictable, consistent writing routines.  In the end that’s a writer’s main responsibility: to write.

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

I’ve long been fascinated with the life and history of Victoria Woodhull who, though not a creative writer, penned many speeches, articles, essays, and treatises in her day.  She was a flamboyant feminist, an advocate of free love, the first female stockbroker, and the co-founder (with her sister) of the influential and controversial newspaper Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly (best known today for printing the first English version of The Communist Manifesto).

Victoria Woodhull was in no uncertain terms, and even by modern understanding of the phrase, a true bad ass.  She is perhaps most famously known for trying to run for president in 1872, with Frederick Douglas as her running mate, on the Equal Rights Party ticket.  I’m always amazed at how Woodhull, a widely known woman in her day, has somehow fallen out of the historical imagination of most Americans. This woman rubbed elbows with many important people of her time:  She testified before Congress; she was romantically involved with Cornelius Vanderbilt; and she helped to uncover a sex scandal involving Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother, causing a life-long rivalry between the two women.  This woman brought controversy wherever she went—yet she was banished to the backburner of history.

I’ve been working on a Victoria Woodhull side project for some time—one that I hope to return to in the coming year.  It’s difficult to do justice to a woman so interesting, so complex, and so ahead of her time.  If the project of a fiction writer is to create dynamic, compelling characters, that work has already been done by this historical figure. Without a doubt, she receives my vote for 19th Century Woman I’d Most Like to Meet.  (I bet she’d dish on Harriet Beecher Stowe, too.)

For more about Victoria Woodhull: SymonSez, My Hero Project

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

Keep writing.  Keep writing.  Keep writing. Giving up is the worst mistake you can make.

I’ve not been very bloggy lately. I’m ashamed to have missed Short Story Month in May. I had such high hopes of blogging about all my favorite short stories, of linking to other terrific short story blogs, of praising the fair form!

But busy prevails.

One thing I’ve been doing is teaching a summer study abroad class that leaves for Prague and Berlin on Monday. More on that in reports from the field next week…

Another thing I’ve been doing is reading book manuscripts for two different presses. One for a contest in poetry, another for open submissions in prose. And I find that what I am looking for most of all is a writer who has a sense of humor, who is having fun. My colleague articulated this one day as we sat reading through poetry manuscripts – this need for humor – and it has stuck with me as one of the main criteria I look for.

Let me be clear: I’m not talking funny ha-ha. I’m not talking LOL funny. I’m talking playful – with content or language or form. I mean the author is having fun with her art.

I’m also not talking about tricks. “No tricks,” says Raymond Carver. No gimmicks. Go ahead and show off if you’ve got it – like Frank Lloyd Wright does with his Fallingwater cantilevers or his spiraled Guggenheim museum – but don’t be a show off. (Okay, yes, Wright was a bit of a show off, a dandy, but he earned it.)

I’m definitely not talking about jokes. My favorite moments are when I read a sentence and I don’t know it’s funny, but then its humor starts to glimmer like a rising sun behind the words, and by the time I get to the end of the sentence or paragraph, dawn has arisen; it’s a beautiful day.

"what a morning — fresh as if issued to children on a beach"

Let me give a couple quick examples of famous first lines (and first lines are important) that are not necessarily funny on the surface but that reveal the author’s sense of humor:

Mrs. Dalloway said she would be the flowers herself.

– Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

This is revealed as funny when we realize that Mrs. Dalloway has servants to do such jobs for her, and that she volunteers to do this task “herself” because she knows the servants are busy, and, hey, it’s a beautiful day in London!

Call me Ishmael.

– Herman Melville, Moby Dick

As if to say: Ishmael may or may not be my name, but you can call me that.

There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke . . . Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.

– James Joyce, “Sisters,” Dubliners

The humor of the first line, and it IS funny, is revealed through the rest of the paragraph. The narrator is naive, earnest, but the narrative is not earnest. And the narrative (the author) is having fun with this character’s personal drama over the word “paralysis.” There’s the funny comparison to other dreadful words. And his conflicting desires: Oh how the word fills him with fear! Oh how he longs to be nearer to it!

You are probably thinking that I have no idea what I’m talking about because these are very unfunny opening lines and I clearly don’t know what is funny. But  hopefully you can see that I’m making a distinction, that I’m definitely not talking funny ha-ha, though I can love writing that is successfully funny (in which case I am usually also looking for an undercurrent of seriousness). But the less successful manuscripts I’ve been reading tend toward the uber-earnest – toward dramatic nature metaphors or melodramatic climaxes – and I’m all like, Lighten up!


In other news, there’s an interview with me and my editor extraordinaire, Shannon Cain (who won the 2011 Drue Heinz in Short Fiction!), that just posted on the Kore Press blog, Persephone speaks. (Many thanks to Erinn Kelley for asking great questions!)

And my book For Sale By Owner is on the long list for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

At the AWP this weekend I was on this panel:

Hired!: Landing the Elusive Tenure Track Job
Caitlin Horrocks, Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, Darrin Doyle, Nick Kowalczyk, Forrest Anderson, Kelcey Parker
Six recent tenure-track hires in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction discuss their diverse experiences and offer advice and guidance on the search for a teaching position. They’ll discuss every stage of the job search, from researching positions to writing cover letters, to the interview and the campus visit, providing insight into what you can control, what you can’t, and what you should do to prepare. Ample time will be provided for questions.

My portion of the presentation was the INTERVIEW. At the interview, you will be asked variants of the following questions. But there are questions lurking beneath these questions. The questions you will be asked are the “text,” but there is of course a subtext to all of the questions. Here are the types of questions interviewers will ask you, followed by the questions they can’t ask but are really trying to get answers to.

Hired!: Landing the Elusive Tenure-Track Job
Interview Questions
repared by Kelcey Parker

The three pillars of a tenure-track position are: Research/Creative Activity, Teaching, and Service. So the questions typically hone in on these three areas.

Here are the kinds of questions we’ll ask you

About your writing:

1. We really enjoyed your writing sample. Can you tell us a bit more about how you came to this topic/style, and about how it fits in with a larger project (thesis/dissertation)?

2. What theorists, authors, traditions, schools, and/or political issues inform your writing, and what does your work have to offer?

3. Tell us about your next project.

About your teaching:

4. Tell us about your teaching experience. What sorts of classroom obstacles have you had to overcome, and how have you handled them? (Have some specific anecdotes prepared in advance.)

5. How would you teach our Intro to Creative Writing course, which includes fiction and poetry and is required for Education majors?

6. How would you teach an advanced course in your specialty genre? What texts and assignments might you include? How would differentiate between beginner and advanced courses, or between graduate and undergraduate courses?

7. What is your approach to grading creative writing? or mentoring students? or directing theses?

8. How would you teach Composition? (Or a graduate course? Or a special topics course? Online? Your dream course?)

About your service:

9. What experience do you have with running a reading series, editing a literary journal, advising a student journal, etc.?

10. You list a number of service contributions on your CV. Tell us which is most important to you and why it’s important.

11. What service opportunities at our university are you most interested in being a part of?

About your preparation and interest:

12. What interests you about our school? What questions do you have for us?

Here are the questions we’re actually trying to get answers to

We can’t ask you these questions directly. But you can help us get the answers.

About your writing:

1. Do you have a sense of who you are or who you want to be as a writer? Would we like to keep talking with you even after the interview? Do you offer us – and our students – a new way of thinking about literature and writing?

2. Are you going to have a successful future with publishing your work? (per our tenure guidelines)

3. Can you articulate you ideas confidently and coherently? Especially if we bring you to campus to meet the students, the department chair, the dean, the president?

About your teaching:

4. Would you be a fit for our student body? Would you both challenge and connect to our students?

5. Are you thoughtful and reflective about your strengths and weaknesses? Do you offer interesting pedagogical approaches we hadn’t thought about? Would we like to chat with you more about your teaching experiences and ideas?

6. Will you be effective at mentoring, advising, and promoting our students? Are you better with technology than we are?

7. Will you have success as a teacher? (per our tenure guidelines: awards, good evaluations, records of mentorship and student success in publishing, presenting, and grad school)

About your service:

8. How will you – and your experience and networks – contribute to our thriving but budget-restricted creative writing program? Will you bring new ideas we hadn’t thought of – and the energy to implement them?

9. Will you show up (on time) for our meetings and actively participate in the growth of the department? Will you participate in university service demands – like budget committees?

About your preparation and interest:

10. We’ve let you know we’re serious about you. After all, you’re one of a dozen people we’re interviewing out of a hundred or more applications. How serious are you about us? Have you looked at our web site, checked out the faculty bios, previewed the basic curriculum, and found us on a map? How do you think you might fit in at our school?

11.  Would you live in our flyover town that seems crappy but isn’t so bad once you settle in and meet all the great people here? Do you have a partner or kids, and would they live in the town?

[Let me know if you have additional suggestions for this list, or questions.]

Only Lily Hoang could pull this off. She asked for unfinished stories from a bunch of writers (including me), and she finished what we couldn’t. Check out the trailer! Order the book!

Jaded Ibis Press is about to release Lily Hoang’s 220-page book, Unfinished: A Finished Collection. From the site:

Hoang invited over twenty adventurous writers to submit unfinished stories that she then completed. Story fragments ranged from a few sentencesto a few pages, and manifested in wildly different styles. “The breadth of range is impressive,” wrote book critic Paul Constant, “some entries are science fiction, some are field guides for fictional birds, some are descriptions of fantastic, otherworldly museums.”

Authors of unfinished writing are Kate Bernheimer, Blake Butler, Beth Couture, Debra Di Blasi, Justin Dobbs, Trevor Dodge, Zach Dodson, Brian Evenson, Scott Garson, Carol Guess, Elizabeth Hildreth, John Madera, Ryan Manning, Michael Martone, Kelcey Parker, Ted Pelton, Kathleen Rooney, Davis Schneiderman, Michael Stewart, J.A. Tyler.

I’m so glad I did this, but I admit I was tentative when Lily asked for something unfinished. I didn’t want to send what I sent her because I still had hopes for it. It was really heavy with image and language and more like a prose poem. I loved it but I couldn’t seem to hit the right tone for the rest of the story, so I sent it to Lily, mostly because I trusted her. Lily not only finished it, I felt like she – sorry to be cheesy here – completed it. She made it the dark, creepy, desire-y thing it was intended to be.

Last night I turned on the TV to watch Brett Favre, and ended up watching VH1’s Top 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. I tuned in at #14 Nirvana and watched the final countdown to Michael Jackson and The Beatles. (spoiler alert! too late. like we didn’t know.) After that I watched the next episode, #40-#21. Then they repeated the #20-to-Beatles episode, so I got to see #20-15.

Last night I was also reading for a Best Books competition I’m judging.

What is the Best? Who is the Greatest? How do we know?
These are questions on my mind.

Part of the answer is: It depends on who you ask. After The Who was featured at #13, the VH1 host said, “I think The Who should be Top 10, but they didn’t ask me.”

Which makes sense. The host has probably listened to a lot of music and is surely a fan, but his training is probably in, well, hosting. Maybe they’ll ask his vote for the Top 100 Hosts of All Time.

Who did VH1 ask? Many famous musicians and music journalists – people whose lives and livelihoods are intertwined with the music industry, people who themselves are on the list. So that’s good. The top 5 lists of a few of those people were posted on the screen at different points. Alicia Keys’s top-5 list included Sade; Billy Idol’s, The Velvet Underground. (I’m with Billy on that one.) Such diversity of judges allows for a diversity of results, in a good way.

Then there’s criteria. A lot of the people featured on interview clips (musicians and journalists) invoked criteria such as: influence, songwriting, performing, guitar-playing, singing, risk-taking, longevity, “changed the way we thought of ____,” “voice of the generation,” etc. These seem like good criteria to me.

[…googling pause…]

Oh dear. I just found a link to the top 100 list, which says: “Vh1: Top 100 Artists Of All Time list is a major source of controversy on the internet right now. . . . One of the main problems with the list reportedly is the lack of female presence in the top end: Madonna is the only one who made the top 20.”

And now, as I look at the list, by my count there are only 14 women artists in the total 100. And that’s counting the Pretenders and Abba and Fleetwood Mac as women artists (sorry, Mick Fleetwood; sorry Abba dudes).

[I so wasn’t going to go there, but I also read this last night about how The New York Times reviewed 62% men to 38% women in the last two years.]

WHAT I WAS GOING TO SAY is that VH1 seems to be asking the right people to judge, and the people seem to be using good criteria, and that even if we would put The Who in the top 10, most of us can feel good about and agree with them being in the top 20.

AND THAT I expect to have a similar top-3 list as my fellow judges in the contest I’m reading for, based on fairly noncontroversial criteria for good writing. (A necessarily over-simplified claim I’ll elaborate upon in my next post.)

AND FURTHER THAT BEST AND GREATEST are both subjective and somewhat objective. That once you objectively sort out the wheat from the chaff, you can get into your subjective brawls. We can.

BUT NOW I’m just depressed.

Of Haircuts and Edits

August 21, 2010 — 1 Comment

Last week I got a haircut; this week I got a manuscript cut. They both feel great.

I had to submit an almost-final version of my book manuscript to the publisher yesterday, so I Skyped with my amazing editor, Shannon Cain, who turned her laptop camera to show me all my stories spread out on her dining room table on the other side of the country. She had mapped the entire collection: made notes about recurring images and themes; quantified happy vs. sad endings (the sad endings win by a score of 11-3); listed the use of first/second/third-person perspectives; sorted out realist pieces from surrealist pieces from those with structural conceits; and set in place the four anchor stories that serve as the corner pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. I said she was amazing, didn’t I?

We agreed right away to go for lean and mean with the collection, and we started by cutting (hair comparison at work!) five stories. One long, one medium, and three very short. I imagine them falling in piles on the floor like all those unsettling clumps of hair at a salon. We cut because, as my editor says, there were too many stories (19!). The collection, like any head of hair, needed a shape. So we kept the stories that seemed to cohere, to hold together with one another and with the title For Sale By Owner. (The narrator of the title story is a former hair-stylist. Coincidence?)

With the first, last, and middle stories in place, we rearranged the rest according to subject matter, POV, pace, and style. Then we talked story titles and endings. We chopped the last paragraph from two stories and changed three titles. The haircut had turned into highlights and a style.

Now it just needs a dress to be ready for prom!