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And oh, the momentum of your thoughts, and of your prose.

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“Keep Miss Welty Weird”

 

Dear Miss Welty:

I guess I’m writing you, a “Dead Author,” to express my thankfulness that in your case that phrase doesn’t fully apply. I mean, sure, yes, I acknowledge that you’re no longer a living, breathing, aboveground Mississippian—but a Dead Author, as opposed to a Dead Person, is one who’s no longer read and delighted at and grappled with and mulled over, and I’m here to say that that’s not the case, at least wherever I can help it, and to plump for it never to be the case.

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“fierce and funny and wondrous-strange”

I made a mistake along these lines once, back in 1998. You were still a Living Person, but the Library of America seemed to declare you, three years prematurely, a Dead Author. What were they doing, I wondered, giving you the full grand LoA treatment that should be reserved for the Canon of the Dead: glossy black cover, your name in an elegant script; miraculous tight binding that makes the books little bricks, little tombstones along a shelf; that paper not onionskin but kinda-sorta in the direction of onionskinny; and, most of all, the built-in ribbon of bookmark like the one in my grandmother’s Bible? I was indignant on your behalf. No doubt you were frail, given that you were coming up on ninety, and I had no idea about the likelihood of your ever writing again and thus no way of arguing against the logic of what they did. But it seemed at least a little, you know, icky—like they were chivvying you toward the door, a literary instance of “Here’s your hat what’s your hurry?” Did they not realize that you must embalm before you immortalize?

But the older I get, the more I think that, unseemly as it was, they might have had it right. The Library of America wasn’t as skittish or as sentimental as I was about the distinction between person and author. They were acting early on the idea that, as Nabokov expressed it in his early novella The Eye (if you were a live person instead of merely a live author, I’d suggest that you read or reread it, if you felt inclined, so that we might—if you’d consent—chat about it one afternoon next week), “After death human thought lives on by momentum.” They couldn’t save you from small-d death, but they could forestall the damn capital. They had their eye on what you might call an objective of the longer term.

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“fuck-you shadow”

And oh, the momentum of your thoughts, and of your prose. That momentum has swept me along for fifteen years without you now, and I expect it will carry me for as long as I can sidestep the reaper myself. I’ll do my best to pass it on, too.

I balk at bumper stickers like “Keep Austin Weird” (or Keep Asheville Weird, or keep weird whatever thing we like to believe in the originality of but see slipping away, changing, perhaps rubbed away by veneration like those old saints’ statues whose noses first get shiny and then get gone), but I had occasion—honestly, the way I saw it, what I had was excuse—to write an essay for The Oxford American a few years ago that might have been titled “Keep Miss Welty Weird.” There are so many people these days who seem to think of you as having been a kind of quaint, elegant, starchy, and above all elderly southern lady, rather than the bold and playful young woman whose fuck-you shadow haunts the foreground of some of those amazing WPA photographs, rather than the woman, fierce and funny and wondrous-strange, who wrote stories like “No Place for You, My Love.”

I read a passage today in Charles Portis’s Norwood in which he says of a cage for a fortune-telling chicken that “it had once served as a humane catch-‘em-alive mink trap, and in fact no mink had ever entered it, such was its humanity.” For some reason that put me in mind of you . . . and in my way of reckoning, it thus saved you both, a little. Don’t think, though, that I’m claiming such thinking is selfless, much less heroic; I think about you because it saves me, too.

Yours,

Michael Griffith

 

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

michael-griffithMichael Griffith’s books are Trophy, Bibliophilia: A Novella and Stories and Spikes: A Novel; his fiction and nonfiction have appeared in New England Review, Salmagundi, Oxford American, Southwest Review, Five Points, Virginia Quarterly Review, Golf World, and The Washington Post, among other periodicals. Formerly Associate Editor of the Southern Review, he is now Associate Professor of English at the University of Cincinnati and Fiction Editor of the Cincinnati Review. He is also the Editor of Yellow Shoe Fiction, an original-fiction series from LSU Press.

Eudora Alice Welty (April 13, 1909 – July 23, 2001) was an American short story writer and novelist who wrote about the American South. Her novel The Optimist’s Daughter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973. Welty was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among numerous awards including the Order of the South. She was the first living author to have her works published by the Library of America. While Welty worked as a publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration, she took photographs of people from all economic and social classes in her spare time. From the early 1930s, her photographs show Mississippi’s rural poor and the effects of the Great Depression. (wikipedia)

“I also didn’t know back then how difficult it is to write the way you did. To write like you’re whispering into the reader’s ear rather than like you’re screaming into it. You made it look so easy I didn’t understand what an accomplishment that really was.”

Dear Nora,

I want to apologize. I want to apologize for not appreciating you enough when I was young.

Sure, I loved When Harry Met Sally as much as everyone else in America did, but, when it came out, I don’t think I understood the significance of what you were doing. At the age of nineteen, I just thought, Wow, I loved that movie. And, of course, I thought the same thing any young person thinks when they see or read something that makes them feel they’ve gotten a glimpse of what real grown-up love looks like. I thought, I want to grow up. I want to fall in love. I want a relationship like that. What I didn’t think about after I saw When Harry Met Sally or any of your other early movies—because I didn’t know—was the fact that you were one of only a handful of women writing and making movies for major Hollywood studios and that you were doing so in an industry that was and still is totally dominated by men. I know that now (in truth, I’ve known it for several years), but I’m sorry I didn’t appreciate your accomplishments sooner.

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Molly McCaffrey at 19, not yet appreciating Ephron

I did know I liked your female characters. I liked Sally. I liked Annie and Becky. I rooted for Rachel. I admired the hell out of Karen Silkwood. And I always loved Julia. I also knew I could relate to these women. But I wasn’t smart enough back then—remember I was still a teenager when I was first introduced to your work—to recognize how rare it was to find a female lead in a movie whom I liked or to whom I could relate. I thought there would be plenty of them. But, boy, was I wrong. Now I know how wrong I was. Now I know how hard it is to encounter a strong, independent female lead in a film, and I want to thank you for giving me so many over the years.

I also didn’t know back then how difficult it is to write the way you did. To write like you’re whispering into the reader’s ear rather than like you’re screaming into it. To write about things as simultaneously mundane and vital as finding the right apartment or raising your kids. You made it look so easy that I didn’t understand what an accomplishment that really was. And after seven years of studying writing in graduate school—seven years, Nora!—I finally learned that the way you wrote isn’t something we should take for granted. Not only does writing like that not come easy, it also takes courage to have the kind of authorial voice that doesn’t say, Hey, look at me, I’m smarter than everyone else! Or Hey, look at me! What I’m writing about is so big and important! No, you wrote in a regular way about regular things, and I’m sorry, too, that I didn’t give you enough credit for that when I was younger.

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Nora Ephron

I certainly didn’t know how hard it was to get people to pay attention to stories about women because I grew up during the height of the women’s movement with a mother who dragged me to every feminist play or talk she could find. So, when I was young, it felt like those stories were everywhere. And I thought they always would be. But then I grew up and learned that not every woman wanted to be called a feminist, and I understood how lucky I was to have women like you (and my mother) in my life.

I guess what I’m saying is I didn’t know how difficult it would be just to be myself. And that’s why I so appreciate having a role model who has shown me how to do just that. Because you were always yourself, Nora—as a writer, as a spouse, as a mother, as a person. Sometimes when I worry about my career (which is really most of the time), I think about women like you who stayed true to themselves and still made it, and, for a few short minutes, I feel better about my future.

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Molly McCaffrey today

But I know all of that now—and have known it for some time, definitely since we lost you at far too young an age—and that’s why I feel compelled to write to you today. Yes, to apologize for not realizing it sooner. But also to thank you.

Thank you, Nora Ephron, for being one of the first women to write about strong, independent women who reminded me of myself. Thank you for being a woman who was willing to brave the Hollywood studio system. Thank you for being courageous enough to write in a way that speaks directly to your audience. Thank you for being a wonderful role model for both writers and women.

Thank you.

Molly McCaffrey

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

You Belong to Us front cover smallMolly McCaffrey is the author of You Belong to Us (memoir) and How to Survive Graduate School & Other Disasters (stories) and the founder of I Will Not Diet, a blog devoted to healthy living and body acceptance. She is also the co-editor of Commutability: Stories about the Journey from Here to There and the forthcoming Stuck in the Middle: Writing that Holds You in Suspense. She lives in Bowling Green, Kentucky, with her husband, David Bell. [Click here to learn more about How Molly McCaffrey Became a Writer.]

Nora Ephron was one of the most accomplished screenwriters of her time. She wrote and directed sixteen movies, including Silkwood (1983), When Harry Met Sally (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and Julie & Julia, all of which were nominated for Academy Awards. She also wrote two plays and eight books, both fiction and nonfiction. Ephron began her career as a White House intern during JFK’s presidency and then worked as a journalist for the New York Post. She continued to write for various news organizations, including Esquire, Cosmo, The New York Times, and The Huffington Post, until her 2012 death at the age of 71 from complications related to leukemia. She was married three times, and her second marriage to Carl Bernstein was the basis for her novel Heartburn, which was adapted to a film starring Meryl Strep and Jack Nicholson. Her third marriage to screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi was the one that lasted, prompting her to write, “Secret to life, marry an Italian” for Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. Ephron was also the mother of two children, one of whom made a documentary about his mother’s life called Everything is Copy, which is now showing on HBO.

FullSizeRenderBožena Němcová is the subject of my next book, forthcoming in 2016 from Rose Metal Press. She was a Czech fairy tale writer from the 19th century and I’ve been stalking her for most of the 21st century. I got lost in her hometown and site of her famous book, Babička (The Grandmother). I go to her grave every time I’m in Prague. I take pictures of her statues and former homes. And I make journal pages like the one above, which includes her, her name on her grave, a few of the birds one might find on a visit to Granny’s Valley in Ratiborice, and a bird made out of human bones pecking the eye socket of a human skull (as photographed at the Ossuary in Kutna Hora, CZ).

Němcová died at age 42 on 21 ledna 1862. In Czech, leden is January, the month of ice.

Yesterday was her birthday: 4 února 1820. In Czech, únor is February, the month of exhaustion. Which is the only way to describe February.

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.

 

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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.

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This is the first stop of Lynn Kanter’s virtual book tour celebrating her new novel. Be sure to click the banner to see the full tour schedule and follow along for new content each day!

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Lynn Kanter is the author of the novels Her Own Vietnam (2014, Shade Mountain Press), The Mayor of Heaven (1997) and On Lill Street (1992), both published by Third Side Press. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies Lost Orchard (SUNY Press), Breaking Up is Hard to Do, and The Time of Our Lives: Women Write on Sex After 40 (both Crossing Press), and the literary journal Verbsap. Her nonfiction has appeared in Referential Magazine and the anthologies Coming Out of Cancer (Seal Press), Testimonies (Alyson Publications) and Confronting Cancer, Constructing Change (Third Side Press).

Lynn is a lifelong activist for feminist and other progressive causes, and has the T-shirts to prove it. Since 1992 Lynn has worked as a writer for the Center for Community Change, a national social justice organization. She lives with her wife in Washington, DC.

lill streetRead More By And About Lynn:

Novel: The Mayor of Heaven

Novel: On Lill Street

Essay: “What Did I Have”

How Lynn Kanter 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 Lynn for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I’ve always loved words. The printed word, the spoken word, stories told in books or movies, as slogans or jests. I was the girl who studied the lyrics of the Top 40 songs and was drawn to the message more than the melody. I think becoming a writer was a natural outgrowth of my interests and enthusiasms.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I started writing stories when I was a little girl, sitting behind my father’s upright black manual typewriter, a beautiful machine that was old even then. Some of the metal keys had cushioned rubber caps that you could, with difficulty, slide on and off. The rubber had turned hard and cracked like an old pencil eraser that now can only rub holes in the paper.

I can distinctly remember as a child typing the words, “This is a story about a boy and his” – and then hesitating. Should it be his dog? His horse? I wasn’t sure. But I had no doubt the story had to be about a boy, because no one would be interested in a girl’s adventures. Now, of course, I find it sad that a young girl had already absorbed such a clear message about the value of her own stories.

The Mayor of HeavenAs a teenager, I stayed up late filling notebook after notebook with handwritten tales never meant to be shared, losing hours to the sheer exhilaration of writing. I often wish I could reclaim that unselfconscious energy and creativity. I still find joy and deep satisfaction in writing – otherwise no one would do it – but it’s much more effortful now and more burdened with self-criticism. That, I think, is the downside of getting published or working toward publication.

And I did aim for publication. In college, I papered the walls of my dorm room with rejection letters from magazines and journals. Later I stuffed a file cabinet with them. For my current novel, Her Own Vietnam, I probably could have filled another file drawer with rejections from agents, except they were all emails.

It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that my first story was published. By then I had found my subject, and it turned out to be the theme I had rejected as a child: the adventure of women’s lives.

I’ve heard of writers, like the late J. California Cooper, who said that stories and characters’ voices just came to them. I’ve never met any writers that lucky. Nor do I believe that Cooper – a hard-working writer who wrote more than a dozen plays before her fiction was finally published when she was in her 50s – meant that she literally sat around waiting for inspiration to strike.

I became a writer in the only way I think it’s possible to do so: by continually writing, continually reading, and trusting, despite sometimes overwhelming evidence, that somewhere a reader is yearning for exactly the stories you want to tell.

"I'm inspired by the work of Rachel Carson."

“I’m inspired by the life and work of Rachel Carson.”

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

I had a teacher in high school who took me aside after I’d turned in a routine class writing assignment and told me I could become a writer if that’s what I wanted. Over the years I’ve had numerous teachers who helped in various ways, particularly by equipping me to read and appreciate other people’s writing.

But the people who helped me the most are other writers, both aspiring and accomplished. They read my unfinished, unpolished work and allowed me to read theirs, so together we could lay bare the structure of a story and find its weak spots. Other writers have been astonishingly generous with their time, their support, and their insights about the craft of writing and the perils and satisfactions of publishing. I hope I have opportunities to pass on some of the wisdom and kindness I’ve received.

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

I’m inspired by the life and work of Rachel Carson. She wrote books that were both lovely and compelling, and through them she launched a movement to save the earth. She did this while hiding the fact that she was dying of cancer, because she thought that knowledge might undermine her credibility, which was already under attack simply because she was female.

I’m also inspired by Edwidge Danticat. Like so many immigrant children, she had a difficult and painful childhood, emigrating from Haiti to Brooklyn when she was 12 to follow her parents. English was her third language. Yet she turned the unfamiliar English words into beauty and power, using them to open the eyes of the world to the Haitian experience and to advocate for change to alleviate the suffering of immigrants.

"I'm also inspired by Edwidge Danticat."

“I’m also inspired by Edwidge Danticat.”

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

Read everything you can. Enjoy the suspense of “what will happen next?” and study how the author created that feeling. If you find books you love, reread them. You’ll notice and appreciate more each time.

Create a writing community for yourself. The support of other writers is invaluable – both to give and to receive. Plus, no one else wants to want to hear shop talk about the actual work of writing.

If you can, participate in workshops. You’ll learn how to give and take criticism and, most importantly, how to discern unhelpful criticism from the kind of instructive, insightful criticism that you should act on immediately.

Writers write. They don’t plan to write or intend to write; they sit down and write. Of course, the act of writing requires a good deal of researching, reading, and staring out the window – behaviors that other people might confuse with procrastination. Sometimes it is just avoidance – writing is work, after all – but I do believe some amount of daydreaming is intrinsic to the writing process.

You are a writer because you write. It is not dependent on whether anyone will publish what you write.

Protect your writing time. Consider yourself unavailable during that time, and insist that others do so as well. Many people in your life won’t equate writing with work, and will think you’re free to chat or have lunch or run out for milk. It doesn’t matter if they think writing is just a casual hobby for you. What matters is that they leave you alone to write. Making this happen is up to you.

Face the fact that you will almost certainly have to do something else for a living. If you can get a job that uses your writing skills, great – but be sure the kind of writing you do for work does not come from the same place within you as the writing you do for life.

All of this sounds very somber, but the big secret about writing is that it’s difficult, sometimes tedious, often frustrating – and profoundly fun. Enjoy it.

 

 

 

 

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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.

Author Photo-1

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.

Modern Cons

  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!