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Every writer needs to confront the effigies built to his hometown heroes, but doing battle with a statue is a fatal mistake.

 

fresno-saroyan-statueDear William,

You’re everywhere and nowhere. There’s an elementary school named after you. There’s a bronze statue. A dedicated society perpetuates your name. Your signature, rendered in huge silver letters, adorns the Saroyan Theatre at the Fresno Convention Center; the stage has hosted countless concerts by the Fresno Philharmonic, the Fresno Grand Opera, the Fresno Ballet, and performers from all over the world, in every artistic genre. To the visitors passing through, your legacy in the San Joaquin Valley must seem mighty indeed.

william20saroyanYou divided your last years between Paris and Fresno. I can’t think of two more different cities, at least in how they appear in one’s imagination. A decade ago, when I felt trapped in Fresno, its heat and flatness and provincialism combining to make a prison I longed to escape, I took comfort in the idea you kept returning here from Paris. I searched for what brought you back. I needed it, whatever it was, for myself.

Now your former house sits vacant, in a neighborhood turning beige: the faded stucco, the grass, the heavy dust. It’s sad to see. Not as sad, however, as the state of Fresno’s bookshelves. Your books, those odd, funny, beautiful books, which you wrote quickly and with the rarest of literary attributes—with heartbreaking joy—where are they now? How is it possible to see your name everywhere, to grow up knowing your name, but never read the words that made you famous? I fear that if it weren’t for exhumation via the internet (thank you, AbeBooks) I might only know your name. What does that mean for writers? Especially for writers who come from the other California, the San Joaquin Valley?

What would you say, William? In the title page of My Name is Aram, you wrote:

The writer returns these pleasant memories to the world of Fresno, California, from the year 1915 to the year 1925 (from the time he was seven years old and was beginning to inhabit the world as a specific person to the time he was seventeen years old and had forsaken his native valley for some of the rest of the world), and to the members of his immediate family in that world during those years. That is to say, to the ugly little city containing the large comic world, and to the proud and angry Saroyans containing all humanity.

A little, ugly place. A proud, angry people. I think there’s something like a reason in these lines for why you’ve fallen out of print, especially in your hometown. And yet, the memories are pleasant.

I can tell you what I’d like: I’d like you to cast the same long shadow over valley writers as Faulkner casts over writers from the ethically challenged state of Mississippi. I want to arm-wrestle a literary legacy of your quality and quantity, though I would be beaten before for the contest begins. I would like the contest, in losing it, to leave my voice a little bruised, a little twisted, much as the fight with his William left Barry Hannah’s voice crooked and deranged. Every writer needs to confront the effigies built to his hometown heroes, but doing battle with a statue is a fatal mistake. One must find the words that led to the statue being made in the first place. And with you, my William, that’s not been easy.

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I suppose by now I’ve let you down. I’ve included none of the things in my letter to you that make your stories so rich. There’s been no food to eat, no trees to shade us from the warm day, no sunny rooms in which to enjoy conversation. I’ve talked, instead, about fighting and cynicism. Violence, when it appears in your stories, is seldom the bleeding knuckle kind, but rather the spiritual kind: a death in a distant war, hitting home in the form of a telegram; the pain of displacement and genocide, rendered in narrators who speak hilariously of uncles, cousins, and friends. Your characters refuse to believe that evil deeds cancel out the beauty of good people. In fact, they work to insure that it never will. It must speak to the privilege and relative peace of my time, compared to yours, that I welcome violence and cynicism in my writing, whereas you guarded strongly against it. I’ve done the unforgivable, I think: I’ve complained.

Let me try to redeem myself. It’s May 2003, and I’m in my classroom at Kerman High School, twenty miles west of Fresno. The door stands open, and that hard valley light manages to coax a shine out of the asbestos tile floors, unwaxed since last July. The students move between periods. I hear snatches of things as they walk past, talking with friends. Here only outcasts must walk to class alone.

The most gifted student I’ve ever taught comes in carrying a purse large enough for a woman three times her age, which, I suspect, in her soul she truly is, and from my desk she picks up a copy of My Name is Aram. It’s the Laurel Edition from Dell Publishing, an economic paperback with illustrations by Don Freeman. She thumbs the pages then presses her nose into the crack, breathes deep.

“I’ve never read him,” she says.

“Borrow it,” I say. “Bring it back when you’ve read him.”

She lays the enormous purse at her feet and begins lifting out binders, textbooks, a spiral bound journal, more things than I’ve ever considered carrying around with me, and rearranging the contents so your book won’t be mangled in a landslide of bigger, meaner books. As she does this, she holds My Name is Aram in her mouth. A few days later, when she brings it back to me, I notice that the soft cover holds the semi-circular imprint of her teeth.

Since that day in my classroom I’ve been struggling to understand something important, which I’ll try to put down here. It’s good to have memories of Fresno, but it’s a hard place to live. Perhaps that’s why you chose the word forsaking to describe leaving “for some of the rest of the world,” because the same things that make the valley hard for us also tie our hearts there. I left the valley ten years ago, but I write about it every day, walking the family vineyards and the streets of Caruthers in my imagination. I also still have that cheap, chewed copy of My Name is Aram to remind me what it feels like to be bookish in a small valley town. Hungry, that is, for something to explain the conflict of loving and hating your home. Your books help me make sense of my place and my impossible feelings for it.

I hope the next daydreaming child of Fresno who reads your name on a sign won’t have to wait so long to find out the writer you really are.

—–

[This is the latest post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]

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John Carr Walker’s first book, Repairable Men (Sunnyoutside), was a Small Press Distribution Best of the Press pick and a featured title on Late Night Library’s Debut podcast. His writing has been appearing in literary journals since 2007 and in 2014 was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. In 2012 he was awarded a Fishtrap Fellowship for an early draft of his novel-in-progress, “Get.” A native of the San Joaquin Valley and former high school English teacher, he now lives and writes full-time in Saint Helens, Oregon.

William Saroyan (1908-1982) was born and died in Fresno, California, and many of Saroyan’s stories were based on his childhood experiences among the Armenian-American fruit growers of the San Joaquin Valley, or dealt with the rootlessness of the immigrant. The short story collection My Name is Aram (1940), an international bestseller, was about a young boy and the colorful characters of his immigrant family.

 

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Dear Writer,

Persistence is all.

Well, most. It’s most. The most important thing is not that you get a fancy degree or make money doing this (which is different from making a living, in my book), but that you come out of every story with more empathy for the human condition than you went in with.

 

Katie-Cortese-Headshot

Katie Cortese lives in Lubbock, TX, where she teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University. Her stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as Blackbird, Gulf Coast, Sport Literate, and The Baltimore Review, as well as the upcoming Rose Metal Press anthology, Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres. She holds a PhD from Florida State University, an MFA from Arizona State University, and was granted a Tennessee Williams Scholarship to attend the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, as well as a residency at the Arte Studio Ginestrelle near Assisi, Italy. The former editor-in-chief of The Southeast Review, she now serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review, and her flash fiction collection, GIRL POWER AND OTHER SHORT-SHORT STORIES, is slated for release by ELJ Publications in the fall of 2015. She is currently at work on a full-length story collection as well as a novel.

Web site: http://www.katiecortese.com/

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 includes interviews with Talking Writing’s featured writers. Here is an excerpt of Katie’s story “Flight Plan” published at Talking Writing:

Maya’s new apartment complex had eight units, four to a side across a small courtyard. She’d rented one of them, sight unseen, against her father’s advice. The landlady, Alma, was waiting in the parking lot as promised when Maya eased Black Beauty’s powerful engine to a stop. The ’79 Corvette celebrated the end of her cross-country romp in a musical crunch of gravel. Maya tried not to stare at the woman’s sun-spotted shoulders—or the amber folds of flesh melting down her thighs—and climbed into the heat of midday, bending to stretch her legs.

Alma gestured to Maya’s car with the business end of her cigarette. “She’s a prize.”   

“Black Beauty,” Maya said. “Used to be my dad’s. She’s hell on gas.”

Read more by and about Katie:

Story: “Flight Plan” at Talking Writing

Story: “Lemonade” at Chagrin Review

Story: “Gentleman’s Game” at Sequestrum

Story: “Wakulla Springs” at Baltimore Review

How Katie Cortese Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series at Ph.D. in Creative Writing. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Talking Writing for sharing their writers, and thanks to Katie for her awesome answers!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

The short answer is I didn’t, at first. I chose which colleges to apply to based on the strength of their theatre programs and at eighteen years old I had every intention of moving to New York and auditioning my heart out after graduation. I’d always loved to read, and I’d written a little in high school (just some angsty journaling and a few cheesy revenge poems that are—hopefully—lost to the annals of history), and I recognized the need for a more practical major alongside theatre—so, of course, I chose English, because teaching, right? By my senior year of college I’d taken a few fiction workshops and fell in love with a composition process I’m too old to replicate now—writing for eight hours at a stretch through the night, usually waking halfway through the next morning to find I’d slept through Geology again. I was still fifty-fifty as to pursuing acting or writing by my senior year, but I credit my eventual choice to two excellent professors. Doug Glover, a Canadian story writer and novelist, took me aside after one class and shook a rolled up copy of a recent story revision I’d handed him. It hit all the undergraduate landmarks: a husband who mysteriously died at sea, the melodramatic disposal of his ashes in the Atlantic Ocean, and a precocious child wise beyond his years. In any case, Doug waved around the tube of my revision and told me it was the best one he’d seen. Not the best story, he clarified, but the best revision. I’ve always been a little too hungry for praise.

The second professor who gave me a significant push in this direction was Steven Millhauser, and I had no idea how lucky I was to be able to work with him at the time. He told me not to get an MFA (in so doing, he alerted me to the fact that such a thing as grad school for writing existed), but to move home and write in my parents’ basement until either I got a book published or they kicked me out. Then he walked me down the hall to the director of the New York State Summer Writer’s Institute and set me up with a small scholarship to attend it. After that summer of being surrounded by teachers and students who’d made writing their lives, I tossed my headshots and acting resume in a drawer and haven’t looked back (okay, maybe once or twice).

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I got the writing bug in college, as I mentioned above, but I didn’t actually start my journey until I did the exact opposite of what I’d been advised in college. I applied to eleven MFA programs and got into two of them, one of which offered me funding. I got the news that Arizona State had offered me a place in their program while I was on a six-month work visa in London, typing a rambling eighty page novella on a Toshiba satellite roughly the size of a VCR (remember those?). I cried when my mother read my acceptance letter on the phone. After I was back in the States, I moved from my parents’ house in Massachusetts to Phoenix (by way of San Diego, but that’s another story). I’d never been further west than Pennsylvania. The heat was debilitating. I felt like a writer right up until my first workshop class, when I realized I was out of my league. Way out of my league. I didn’t actually start the process of learning to write until I realized how much I had left to learn, and how talented everyone else in my class (and beyond) was. Once I got over the feeling of not being the star pupil (which, I think, most of us in that MFA had been in college), I could finally stop trying to impress everyone and just try to be a better writer every day than the one I’d been the day before.

The short answer to how I became a writer is by writing and reading. A lot. I’d argue that’s how everyone does it, in some form or another.

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

Wow, this is a very long list. There are those professors back in college I mentioned above, plus the amazingly talented Greg Hrbek who was the first person to introduce me to Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. My friend Jillian Schedneck lived with me in London while she was applying for MFAs in Creative Nonfiction. She ended up going to West Virginia’s program, and got her PhD in Australia where she still lives and teaches. We still read each other’s work and I think we kept each other’s spirits up as ex-pats waiting for good news from home. My MFA teachers have been my rocks, and years later I’m still bugging them for advice and letters of recommendation and favors (maybe just to make sure they don’t forget me!): Melissa Pritchard, T. M. McNally, Ron Carlson, and all the visiting writers I was fortunate to work with in brief stints during my three years at ASU.

I tell my current students to hold onto their good readers because they are a rare commodity out in the cold, hard world, and that’s advice I practice. Most of my readers are my former MFA colleagues—truly generous and brilliant human beings who are now pursuing PhDs and working in tenure-track positions and publishing books every other year, it seems like. I went to Florida State for my PhD and will be forever grateful to my professors there—Mark Winegardner, Julianna Baggott, Elizabeth Stuckey-French. My husband is my first reader and biggest cheerleader. And my parents, of course. My mother had me memorizing Shakespeare at four years old. My father read me The Hobbit at bedtime every night for a year. If one of those links in the chain had given way, I might not have kept at this pursuit. There’s a lot of rejection. I’m guessing there always will be, but now I feel that I owe all of the people mentioned above my best effort and if I falter I imagine having to explain to one of them why I quit writing. I’m accountable to them, and thank god for that.

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

For a long time, I’ve hung onto the fact that Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t start writing until her fifties (or at least, that’s when she published her first book). I grew up with the Little House books, and so did most of my peers and their kids, and I hope my kids will grow up with those books too. It’s amazing to me that she taught herself how to write over the course of the series (sort of like J.K. Rowling, as far as that goes), though she had the tools because she had everything a writer needs to succeed: a love for literature (she was a teacher before she married Almanzo, of course), empathy for other humans, time (once the children were raised), patience, and persistence. Now her works are an institution unto themselves. That’s so cool to me.

I’m also interested in writers that had other abiding interests and/or careers. William Carlos William and his doctoring. Barbara Kingsolver has a degree in biology, and it shows in her work. I like Stephen King’s path to becoming a writer because his is a story of persistence and perseverance, drives which developed ahead of his talent and which every writer needs in order to get past those first few (thousand) rejections. I should have mentioned King earlier, actually, because he’s another reason I wanted to become a writer. His book It. Not the monster stuff, which is cool in a “this is why clowns can never not be creepy again” way, but I fell in love with those kids he writes about and the adults they became; I admire how he grew a fictional town from the ground up and invested it with a history that speaks to real towns all over America; I envy the way his language made me forget I was reading so I actually saw the story unfold, even if I would rather not have looked at some aspects as closely as he wanted me to. The first few stories I wrote were all imitations of It in one way or another. And then The Stand. And then The Body (which became the movie Stand By Me). Heck, maybe they still are.

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

Dear Writer,

Persistence is all.

Well, most. It’s most. The most important thing is not that you get a fancy degree or make money doing this (which is different from making a living, in my book), but that you come out of every story with more empathy for the human condition than you went in with. That doesn’t mean forcing happy endings onto everything, but it does mean treating every character as the full human he or she would have to be in order to move us. There are no villains, especially in their own minds. In fact, tell the villain’s story. Jane Smiley did this in A Thousand Acres. Gregory Maguire in Wicked. Actually, remember that everyone has potential to be the villain in someone else’s story. Write every character this way, with shades of all that humans are capable of.

Remember that you never need permission to write. And never question your subject. There are no wrong stories. There is no “right” age to start, or to stop. All a writer needs to succeed is a love and appreciation for literature, to read widely and omnivorously, to have empathy for people and an abiding interest in the strange, horrifying, and often gorgeous world we occupy, and to persist. Not everyone will care if you persist, so it’s up to you to provide the momentum.

Take risks, fail, and remember that if you experience a lot of success early that you should appreciate it for a few minutes, and then get back to work. Early success is dangerous. Be suspicious of it, and always have another project in the pipeline. Unfortunately, or fortunately, your work will never be done.

And thank god for that.

Man of Clay VBT Banner Draft 1

Today is the first day of CL Bledsoe’s virtual book tour celebrating Man of Clay, a novel with elements of magical realism and a dash of steampunk. This funny, engaging story redefines what Southern Literature is capable of being. Man of Clay can be pre-ordered today!

HeadshotCL Bledsoe is the author of four poetry collections, one short story collection, and five novels, including the Necro-Files series. His stories, poems, essays, plays, and reviews have been published in hundreds of literary journals, including Cimarron Review, Barrow Street, New York Quarterly, Gargoyle, Nimrod, Arkansas Review, Pank, Potomac Review, and many others. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize thirteen times, Best of the Net four times, and has had two stories selected as Notable Stories of the year by Story South’s Million Writers Award. Bledsoe currently lives in Alexandria, VA, with his daughter.

ManOfClay_novellaRead More By and About CL:

Short Story: “Mouth”

Short Story: “Texas Never Whispers”

Poem: “The Sad Lobster Speaks”

Poems: “Roaches” and “Anthem” in Story South

Interview: By Cervena Barva Press

Interview: By Etopia Press

Poetry Book: Riceland

Novel: The Necro-Files: $7.50/Hr + Curses

Essay: “My First Critic”

Essay: “Thesis”

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 CL for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I was raised by storytellers, so it was a natural progression to want to tell stories myself. I grew up in the rural South on a farm, and my dad, brother, and uncles were always telling stories. Everything was a narrative to them. If you asked if someone had seen a movie or TV show or read a book, there was no “yes” or “no” answer; instead, you got a story about the experience. And they were entertaining stories. I’ve always been enthralled by the abilities of good storytellers who can control an audience. Stories, specifically books, but movies, and comedy performances also, were the only things that really provided comfort for me when I was growing up, but more than that, stories were exciting. I had an unusual and difficult childhood, and I never saw much gain from church or school or the social conventions one was supposed to pursue but didn’t seem particularly welcoming to me. Similarly, we were poor and the farm was struggling to stay afloat. There wasn’t a lot of hope or optimism around. But stories showed people with dignity and wisdom and all those things that we’re taught matter when we’re little kids, but we learn don’t really exist in any reliable sense when we grow up. Stories reconstructed the world into something better. In a good story, there is a God—the storyteller—and s/he does care about the characters, loves them, even when s/he makes them suffer. In that sense, it’s pure escapism for me. It’s a better world, but it’s a true world because it presents people we strive to be. And, most importantly, it shows us what we can be.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

When I was a kid, I’d play “writer.” I’d gather up whatever office supplies I could get a hold of—crayons and paper, glue sticks, scissors—and sit at our big dining room table and…mostly make messes.

When I got older and more serious, I struggled quite a bit to work out the various conventions of writing novels and short stories, especially, but also poems. I didn’t realize that writing IS that struggle. I went to college to learn how to write. I worked my ass off. All around me, I saw folks calling themselves writers who lacked work ethic. Not me. I took every suggestion I could get and tried them all. I’d submit something for workshop every week, if I was allowed. I set up off-campus workshops in addition to my classwork, and provided new material for all of them constantly. This was because I was a really rough writer, but I wanted to improve.

I started sending work out to literary journals as an undergrad because that was something I understood. I’d been on the staff of one in high school, but they wouldn’t publish me until I purposefully wrote something about Jesus, which they snatched right up. In college, I cast the net pretty wide. I’d send out work to fifty places at a time. Most would reject me. I started targeting places I’d seen the grad students get published in, and I had some success. My first big publication was in Nimrod as an undergrad. That was quickly followed by Story South. I had certain journals I aimed for and loved, and these weren’t usually the popular ones. I remember the first time I placed something with Clackamas Literary Review, which I considered one of the best journals out there but I’m sure most people have never heard of. Hobart was another real coup, though it has become, deservedly, pretty high-profile. I’ve continued submitting work to those kinds of journals—solid journals that aren’t necessarily hip but publish good work. I’ve been in plenty of hip journals—and I realized pretty quickly that popularity had nothing to do with quality. The same way my high school journal wanted Jesus poems, these hip journals wanted whatever fads. I’ve never been a cool kid, but I have been guilty of trying to follow the fads on occasion.

"The writers and artists I most admire are those who labored, at times in total obscurity, just to create their art. Henry Darger, the outsider artist/writer, comes to mind."

“The writers and artists I most admire are those who labored, at times in total obscurity, just to create their art. Henry Darger, the outsider artist/writer, comes to mind.”

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

I never really had a mentor, per se, which I regret—it was kind of one of the main reasons I went to grad school—but a ton of people have helped me, and still help me. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a lot of publishers, editors, and other writers, and I think that most of us understand that we have to help each other. More than that, we enjoy it. I don’t want to name a lot of names, but I’ll narrow it down to two major groups of folks. The first group was centered around The Arkansas Review. I’ll expand this to include several folks not really connected to AR but who are connected to Arkansas, where I was born and raised. Several, several folks have helped me by publishing me, promoting my work, and just being friendly, because we all are either from Arkansas or are connected to it. We’d reach out to each other and share stories about being away from “home,” and we’d promote each other’s work. Along the same lines, when I moved to the Baltimore area, I met so many wonderful writers and promoters who have invited me to read or submit writing to their journals. Baltimore has an incredibly vibrant literary scene, really supportive but also wild. I love reading in Baltimore. Maybe somebody gets drunk and heckles you, or maybe somebody takes their clothes off, but they listen. And they’ll buy you a drink afterwards.

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

Some terrible instructor asked me, once, what my goals were as a writer. I told him I wanted to be a mid-list writer, plugging away, pumping out books on university presses without a lot of accompanying fanfare or drama. I was being an asshole, but I was also not. I am definitely more of a tortoise than a hare when it comes to writing, and the writers and artists I most admire are those who labored, at times in total obscurity, just to create their art. Henry Darger, the outsider artist/writer, comes to mind. Van Gogh. Emily Dickinson. Wilhelm Stekel was quoted in Catcher in the Rye when Holden’s former teacher tells him, “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of a mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.” That’s how I feel about writing and art, and I admire those who live accordingly, in the same way that I admire those who live their lives humbly. Writing, for me, is more about life than lifestyle.

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

Only do it if you have no choice. A friend once told me that we’re writers because we’re damaged in such a way that this is how we communicate. I have to write; it’s a physical necessity. If I don’t write, I get anxious, depressed, antsy. It’s how I process and think and live and love. If this doesn’t make sense to you, go do something else.

Having said all that, I think the greatest lesson to learn about writing is to be open, which is also the greatest lesson to learn about life. Read voraciously—not just within your own preferred genre—and write voraciously. Don’t worry about what others will think of what you’ve written until you’re revising, if even then. And be open to every opportunity you find, or that finds you.

Be kind to yourself. Write every day, except when you don’t. Fuck up and start over.

Follow along with the Man of Clay virtual book tour by heading to [PANK] tomorrow!

 

 

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Today is the first stop of Jen Michalski’s virtual book tour celebrating her new collection, From Here. The twelve stories in From Here explore the dislocations and intersections of people searching, running away, staying put. Their physical and emotional landscapes run the gamut, but in the end, they’re all searching for a place to call home.

Jen reading

Jen Michalski is author of the novel The Tide King, winner of the 2012 Big Moose Prize, and other works listed below. She is the host of the Starts Here! reading series, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown. She also is the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine called a “Best of Baltimore” in 2010. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and tweets at @MichalskiJen. Find her at jenmichalski.com.

Read more by and about Jen:

Short Story: “Human Movements

Short Story: “Lillian in White

Interview: Talking about The Tide King

Novella Collection: Could You Be With Her Now

Fiction Collection: Close Encounters

How Jen Michalski 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’m not sure it’s a question of “want.” I’ve been writing since I learned to write, and even if I never published a word again, if no one except me read another sentence that I wrote, I would continue to write. It’s as natural to me as breathing, as seeing, and definitely how I am able to organize my thoughts and understand the world. If I couldn’t write, my ability to be “Jen” would suffer as a result. It’s not about making an observation or a statement or wanting people to listen to me as some sort of authority. It’s the way I dialogue with my mind and with the outside world, a conversation.

  1. How did you go about becoming a writer?

It wasn’t a concerted effort, at least to writing fiction. I majored in Language and Literature at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in the early 1990s, and I wrote some bad poetry during those years, but I never thought about being an “author” per se. I had always written novels, but they were more for my own enjoyment and trying to figure out who I was.

I graduated from St Mary’s thinking I would write features for magazines and newspapers, or be an editor, and I got my MS in Professional Writing from Towson University a few years later still thinking that. One of the classes I took at Towson, however, was an independent study, and I wrote another novel that someone actually read–my independent study professor, who also happened to be my advisor. She encouraged me to submit it. I sent it to a couple of places and was rejected, but I began to wonder what would happen if I wrote another novel and submitted it. Then, after I graduated, I started the literary quarterly jmww to sort of remain involved with the writing community. Over the years I got to meet other, more successful writers, and learned you could get an MFA in creative writing (seriously, I didn’t know) and all this other fun stuff. So, I started writing and sending out short stories. I guess this was about 2004, and I haven’t stopped.

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

My grandparents, both maternal and paternal, were very working class but voracious readers. My dad’s mother read a lot of mysteries and Ellery Queen and would give me the issues when she was finished, and my mom’s dad, who loved Westerns and historical romances, would take my brother and me to the library every Saturday morning. Coming from a family who only went to the beach, which was two hours away, one week every summer, books offered me vistas I didn’t know even existed, helped me nurture a great curiosity about people and the world.

When I graduated college, I reviewed art and books and the occasional play for The Baltimore Alternative, and my editor then, Rawley Grau, read a few of my stories and made me feel as if I had a little talent. I also was enamoured of his life as an editor and aspired to have a career in the writing arts.

These days, there are so many people–the many editors who have published my stories; Gregg Wilhelm, with whom I have worked for years to try and maintain a vibrant, fun writing community here in Baltimore; Savannah Schroll-Guz, who gave me my first break (and book) at So New Publishing; Michael Kimball, with whom I co-hosted the 510 Readings over 7 years and who has been instrumental in encouraging me to take some risks as a writer; Ed and Ann Berlin of The Ivy Bookshop, who work twice as hard as everyone else in making sure writers have a voice in Baltimore; Steven Gillis and Dan Wickett at Dzanc; Diane Goettel and Angela Leroux-Lindsey at Black Lawrence Press; Cynthia Reeser at Aqueous. Years of writing groups here in Baltimore, and happy hours. My family and friends and my partner, Phuong, for their unwavering support.

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

Without coming off as incredibly pretentious, I’ve always been struck by Beethoven, who began to go deaf around 26, when he was working on “Pathetique.” He wrote to his brothers about wanting to commit suicide but decided to continue living and creating art. At one point, he didn’t even know that his work reviewed a standing ovation until he turned around and saw everyone in the music hall clapping. If Beethoven didn’t throw in the towel, then how can the rest of us? And I think we should work in that vacuum as well, deaf and blind to applause, to reaction, good or bad.

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

It is always about shouting the words into the wind, into the tempest, because they need to be purged, not because they need to be heard.

*Tomorrow, visit The Next Best Book Club blog to follow the tour and read an excerpt of From Here plus Jen’s insights from the passage: what she was thinking while she was writing, the funny trail of thoughts that got her there, and a whole lot more!

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Today is the first stop of Désirée Zamorano’s virtual book tour celebrating her new novel. Mercy Amado has raised three girls, protecting them from their cheating father by leaving him. But Mercy’s love can only reach so far when her children are adults, as Sylvia, Celeste, and Nataly must make their own choices to fight or succumb, leave or return, to love or pay penance. When tragedy strikes in Sylvia’s life, Mercy, Celeste, and Nataly gather support her, but their familial love may not be enough for them to remain close as the secrets in their histories surface. Forgiveness may not be accepted. Fiercely independent, intelligent, they are The Amado Women.

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Désirée Zamorano is Pushcart prize nominee, and award-winning short story author, Désirée has wrestled with culture, identity, and the invisibility of Latinas from early on, and addressed that in her commentaries, which have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and NPR’s Latino USA. She delights in the exploration of contemporary issues of injustice and inequity, via her mystery series featuring private investigator, Inez Leon (Lucky Bat Books). Human Cargo was Latinidad’s mystery pick of the year.

The Amado Women has been listed among 5 Must-Read Books for Summer 2014 by Remezcla, and has been named among Eleven Moving Beach Reads That’ll Have You Weeping in Your Pina Colada by Bustle. It was selected as the August 2014 Book of the Month for the Los Comadres & Friends National Latino Book Club.

Read more by and about Désirée:

Short Story: “Mercy”

Novel: Modern Cons

Travel Essay: “The Ruins of Mexico City”

Interview: “Q&A: Désirée Zamorano on the Lives of Latinas and The Amado Women

Reading: Human Cargo

How Désirée Zamorano 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 Désirée for saying yes!

  1. Why did you want to become a writer?

As far back as third grade I thought being a writer was the most amazing thing in the world. Of course, I had no sophisticated sense of drafts and revising; I was simply dazzled by the stories and books I consumed. I, too, wanted to be the creator of something mesmerizing. I didn’t have the words for it then, but I wanted to enchant and entertain. As my understanding of writing and writing as a career deepened, I still clung to this goal, partly out of stubbornness, partly out of who I planned on being.

  1. How did you go about becoming a writer?

While very famous people got their MFA from my alma mater, I had financial and emotional pressures that precluded that. So, instead, I went to writers conferences, like Squaw Valley and La Jolla. As I toiled away at short stories, my sister pitched us as playwrights. Together we wrote two plays that were produced.

cover-human-cargoI really think of the Joe Jackson song, “You can’t get what you want til you know what you want.” Like everybody in Southern California, my sister and I collaborated on a couple of screenplays, but with the demands of my children and day job, I really felt I had to narrow my pursuits to what I really wanted to achieve: writing novels. Sure, the fantasy of screenplay money was sweet, but the reality was thousands more dedicated people were our competition. And I wanted to write novels.

In practical terms I did what writers before me have done: carved words out of the day. Writing is so abstract and theoretical, especially if you’re not published or don’t have a deadline or a paid assignment. I made it the most important item on my to-do list and gave myself achievable goals. When I was raising small children, 250 words a day was a goal. I increased the word count as I grew comfortable and confident. Today, the goal is 1,000 new words on writing days. (And I’m not Stephen King or Lisa See; they’re not all writing days! I like scheduling goof-up days, as well).

After feeling particularly isolated, my sister told me to find a writer group, and there was one so close by there was no excuse not to join. Finding like-minded people really nurtured what I was trying to do. Over the years the group has changed, but we continue to cheer each other on, and today, with the explosion in social media, I think it’s even easier to find your soul’s community.

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

I am grateful for my supportive friends and family. Since publication is unsure, I certainly needed a cheering squad around me. When I finished a novel, a group of my friends read it, then we’d have a mini-book club, with praise and criticism to help me improve it. That fed my attention-seeking artist soul!

At one point I wanted to excise the desire to be a writer from my soul. The lack of success was causing me too much grief, bitterness, and resentment. It was at that point I came across Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life. It truly sustained me through the most challenging time of my writing life.

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

I met Dagoberto Gilb on the bookshelf of Pasadena’s Central Library. His collection of essays, “Gritos,” was riveting–about his life as a struggling Mexican-American writer, about his childhood in the same small town where I grew up. I admire his ferocity, his word play, his brilliance. I’m a big fan.

Dagoberto Gilb

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

Good luck! Every writer’s path is different, and you must forge your own way. My favorite words of advice come from the French film director Robert Bresson: “Make visible that which without you might never be seen.”

*Tomorrow, visit The Next Best Book Club blog to follow the tour and read an excerpt of The Amado Women plus Désirée’s insights from the passage: what she was thinking while she was writing, what research entailed, and a whole lot more!

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This is one stop on Zarina’s virtual book tour.
Keep up with the rest of the tour here!

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I have a tattoo on my wrist: You must become who you are. It is a quote from Nietzsche.

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Zarina Zabrisky is the author of two short story collections IRON and A CUTE TOMBSTONE (Epic Rites Press) and a novel WE, MONSTERS (Numina Press). Zabrisky’s work appeared in over thirty literary magazines and anthologies in the US, UK, Canada, Ireland, Hong Kong and Nepal. She is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a recipient of 2013 Acker Award. Read more about the author at zarinazabrisky.com. You can purchase A CUTE TOMBSTONE here.

IronRead more by and about Zarina:

Story: “The Twilight of Liberty

Video: Zarina reading “Pig Legs.”

Short Story Collection: Iron

Novel: We, Monsters

Interview:The Nervous Breakdown

How Zarina Zabrisky 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 Zarina for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

I wrote my first poem at six.  My first novel at eleven. There was no “why.” But if I have to rationalize, I would love to quote Josef Brodsky: “I’ll just say that I believe – not empirically, alas, but only theoretically – that, for someone who has read a lot of Dickens, to shoot his like in the name of some idea is more problematic than for someone who has read no Dickens.” So, I figure, if I write anything anywhere close to Dickens… at least, I can try.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

It is not becoming a writer for me. It is being a writer.
I was in Queretaro at a writing workshop last summer. I wrote a poem there:

There is a knitting shop
On the corner
And three old women are knitting,
Needles dancing.
Their faces are still, bronze,
Their eyes fixed on the wall,
Not on the knitting.
Their fingers know
How to weave.
Their hands remember everything.
Their patterns come from their hearts
Or, maybe, from the spirits that live on that big invisible mountain.

They don’t knit,
They became the knitting.
Same for me:
I don’t write–
I became the writing,
And my fingers dance blindly
Across the page.

As for becoming oneself, I am still working on it… I have a tattoo on my wrist: You must become who you are. It is a quote from Nietzsche.

We Monsters

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

My father liked my writing before he passed away. He didn’t do or say anything that stuck in my memory but I remember his face softening and the expression of pride or happiness in his usually sad or withdrawn eyes. Then I became a closet writer and no one had an opportunity to help me–they did not know I needed help.  I didn’t know that myself.

I found a whole new dimension of helping each other in the creative process through literary collaboration with my writing and life partner, Simon Rogghe.  Through listening to each other, and hearing, we write and discover. Being heard is the most important–and almost impossible–type of help that a writer can use, I think.  Together, we have gone on many adventures: performing our poetry to music and even dancing it and taking it around the country–from Pittsburgh and Cleveland to Seattle and Portland; writing poetry duets on an imaginary journey in Mexico and creating visual concepts for it.  This went so well that the book of collaborative poetry is forthcoming from amazing Numina Press, in November 2014.  The book is called Green Lions and in it I will debut with my illustrations–the visual concepts found together with Simon.

I was also very lucky to have my publishers, Epic Rites Press (Canada), Numina Press (SF) and Nostrovia Press (mobile and everywhere) work with me and support my books.  The independent publishers are passionate, powerful and insanely talented people, of a rare kind.

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Vaslav Nijinsky

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

So many… From Salinger who managed to run away from it all to just write, to Vaslav Nijinsky, a legendary ballet dance, whose diary was the book that impressed me the most, perhaps. Nijinsky is the dancer who became the dance.  The diary was written in Switzerland in a short spurt, and in a matter of weeks schizophrenia won over one of the most unusual and creative minds of the last century.  But before he sank into decades of mental non-being, Nijinsky pulled up the curtain of the theater which only can be called Universe.  There is no bullshit in that book.  He even says that it should be read the way he wrote it: in his rushed cursive, in French and Russian. I did that: went to the NYC Performing Arts Library and ordered the microflims.  Read them in the dark room for hours…  Also, Jim Morrison.  William Blake.  I am inspired by people who stayed true to their core and vision despite of any circumstances.

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

“You must become who you are.” Also, write and read. In particular, read Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading. The only good book on writing I have found.  The book cuts into the bone marrow of language, brain work and the intangible realm called poetry. No frills and no politically correct New Agey nonsense. He can be blunt and rude, but if you read his ABC you might end up with better writing.

In April 2014, I led a four-day writing workshop with a dozen graduate students at Miami University. The subject: The Architecture of Stories. The assignment: Write a story inspired in both form and content by a significant architectural structure.

I’ll be posting excerpts from the stories along with info about the architectural structures. Here’s the second one!

Architectural Inspiration: The Cincinnati Art Museum…

 

 …and a failed exhibit that involved a gun being fired in the building. The bullets were aimed at this box…

 …and were supposed to form the shape of a crown. Oops.

 

The Story: excerpt from “Dead Art/Not Relevant” by Curtis Dickerson

“It takes bold, very genuinely thoughtful people to understand that it’s not a crazy thing to do.”

The sniper is anonymous. The artist name on banners hung from light posts and museum walls. Ballistic gel in place, calculations calculated. The sniper asks if the artist would like a particular shape in the target. Between the two: Ann Ford, Portrait of a Man in Armor, Whistling Boy, Vase, Blue Hole, Commode, Shiva, Reclining Female Figure, Human Figure, Romanian Blouse, Soup Can, Dancer, Greek God or Hero, Mummy of Adult Male, St. Stephen, St. Christopher, Bill Curry, Eve. Circa 2500 BC – 1980 AD. There are no female artists represented. Where is the artist? He is adjusting his monitors. Where is the sniper? S/he is calibrating his/her weapon, s/he is picturing the target penetrated, s/he is not a talkative person.

“For young people with no real idea of how to make anything, or any real talent or skill or inspiration, this kind of work comes easy.”

From ten to five, Eden Park is rife with gunfire, normally regulated to less desirable/bad/problematic/depressed/scary/different parts of town. We were cautioned with fliers, with reports on the local news. We are interested, we are angry, we are excited, we are annoyed, we are confused, we are repulsed, we are thrilled; our concerns are not considered. We must relive it again a year and a half later when the exhibit opens. The artist is profiled in the Enquirer. He is a “Cincinnati artist” who lives in New York City. We are Cincinnati artists/lawyers/teachers/editors/housewives/businessmen/actresses/clergy who live in Cincinnati. His point of reference is a film that came out eleven years before he was born. We saw it in theaters, have rented it from the Cincinnati Public Library. “It is disturbing, but is it disturbing in a meaningful way? This seems so far from the mission of a general art museum, which is to preserve, display and exhibit art.”

A column, plume–a geyser of energy, instantaneous, captured with/through six blinking cameras–propels projectile. Sheriffs stand arms sheathed smirking: better than a day spent on a beat or in the office at least. The ghosts of greats trapped in canvas are anxious, the pulses of nervous energy from the living they sense through pores. Watch as it passes, if you can. And you can, a year and a half later. And you can feel it, perhaps in a century. And you can feel it coming, though once you feel it it’s already past.

“To shoot a gun in the halls in the museum, it’s in bad taste. The speeding bullet is going in front of 18 iconic treasures. I think it’s his way of showing that it’s dead art and not relevant.”

(quotes taken from the Cincinnati Enquirer article “Cincinnati Art Museum’s ‘Crown’ exhibit under fire” written by Janelle Gelfand and published 15 March 2014)

The story behind the story (as told by Curtis Dickerson)

I happened upon this story listening to our Cincinnati NPR affiliate. A museum curator was being interviewed for WVXU’s local program “Cincinnati Edition,” and when the prompt for our sprint week was explained, I immediately thought of this instance. I’m not sure I have a position on the correctness of firing a gun in a museum, especially one that houses works as old as the Cincinnati Art Museum does, but it’s a heavy decision to make, and I don’t envy anyone who had to look at the artist’s proposal and decide whether or not that this was a thing that should have been done.

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About the author

Curtis Dickerson, a native of Dayton, Ohio, studies and teaches writing at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he lives alongside his partner and dog. His interests and passions include social justice, reality television, and animal advocacy. The most recent book he has read which he highly recommends is George Packer’s The Unwinding.