Archives For Rainer Maria Rilke

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová by Kelcey Parker Ervick
is one of the least bitter, most loving books I have read in a long time,
and it’s beautifully made.

– Kate Bernheimer
author of How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales

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Still Life with Books and Beer

 

Today is publication day for The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová! My journeys in the Czech Republic and Slovakia took me to this book, and this book has taken me on its own journey. It’s my first book-length work of nonfiction, and it includes a series of postcards I wrote to Němcová about my travels, my Czech language class, my Slovakian family, and, well, my failing marriage. I quote from my favorite Prague-based letter-writers: Franz Kafka’s Letters to Milena, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, Bohumil Hrabal’s Letters to Dubenka, and Vaclav Havel’s Letters to Olga.

What I am probably most amazed about is that this book also includes collages and paintings I made, published in beautiful full color. The first two here are images from my travels to Česká Skalice, where Božena Němcová grew up. I was lost, and these were the not very helpful signs. The third image is of a photo on a bulletin board at Shakespeare and Sons in Prague that addresses anxieties one might feel about publishing a strange hybrid beast of a book such as mine.

But you can help make the book a bestseller! It is now available for purchase from Rose Metal Press, Small Press Distribution (SPD, where it is a Handpicked selection, 20% off in November), Amazon (ugh, this will update soon!), Amazon’s Kindle (live and ready!), etc. It costs $17.95, which is pretty amazing considering the color images.

If you read and like it, please consider posting a review on Amazon, Goodreads, etc. If you’re even thinking of reading it, you can mark it as “want-to-read” on Goodreads. All this helps libraries and other potential readers know about the book, and make it an even-better-seller.

I want to end with a major thanks to Abby Beckel and Kathleen Rooney at Rose Metal Press. I’ll say more in a future post, but they did SO MUCH GOOD WORK  make this book the beautiful object that it is. And thanks to Heather Butterfield for her stunning design work.

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Sentences and stories are malleable. This was counterintuitive to me at first because when you read a great book, it doesn’t seem as if had ever been a malleable thing. Every word and phrase seems destined, inevitable – how could it ever have been otherwise?

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Nicole Simonsen teaches English at an urban public high school in Sacramento and lives nearby in Davis, California, with her husband and children. Some years ago, before starting a family, she received an MA in writing from UC Davis. “Her Third Baby” is her first published story.

Featured at Talking Writing: This interview is part of a partnership with Talking Writing magazine. The How to Become a Writer Series here at PhD in Creative Writing now includes interviews with Talking Writing’s featured fiction writers.

Read Nicole Simonsen’s story, “Her Third Baby” at Talking Writing. Excerpt:

Something was wrong with our mother. This I had pieced together from bits of whispered conversation. Like the baby, she cried too much, but unlike the baby, her crying was inconsolable. I didn’t know what that word meant, so I looked it up in the dictionary. To be heartsick, heartsore, wretched. Something was wrong with my mother’s heart.

How Nicole Simonsen 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 Nicole for saying yes! And thanks to Talking Writing magazine for sharing their writers!  ‪

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

When I was 11 years old, I came across a copy of Where the Red Fern Grows.  I was a girl in love with animals, and so Billy Coleman’s relationship with his dogs was one that I understood.  Every time I opened that book, I stepped into a dream world full of courage and loyalty and what seemed like the best love of all – the love of a good dog.  When Old Dan and Little Ann died, I was devastated.  I could not believe it.  I came home from school every day for two weeks and read and reread the ending and cried until my eyes swelled.  One day, spent from crying, I looked at an open page, at all the hundreds of letters and words.  They were nothing more than little black scratch marks and yet there I was crying again.  How did Wilson Rawls do that?  How did any writer arrange words and sentences in such a way that they could reach across time and space and grab me by the throat? It seemed a form of magic.  It’s a question I still wonder when I read something amazing.  How on earth did the writer do it?  For the last twenty years, I’ve tried wielding that magic myself.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I went to journalism school is the short answer.  By high school I knew I wanted to be a writer, and getting a degree in journalism seemed like the best way to become one.  Actually what I wanted was to become a “foreign correspondent.”  In my fantasy, I would work for a newspaper, travel the world, and have all sorts of adventures.  Mostly I just wanted to say I was a foreign correspondent, sort of like George Costanza on Seinfeld telling attractive women he was an “architect”.  Foreign correspondent… who wouldn’t be impressed?

But then a funny thing happened in journalism school.  As I was learning to write stories for the school newspaper and for my classes, I was often tempted to make things up… quotes, facts, details, it was so much easier to make it up.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I crossed a few ethical boundaries.  In a history of journalism class, we learned about Janet Cooke, the writer who won the Pulitzer for a made-up the story about a little boy addicted to heroin.  It ruined her career, of course.  Her story scared me – I understood that impulse so well.  I realized that I would probably get into enormous trouble one day and bring shame upon my family if I pursued a career in journalism.

It took me awhile to figure out that the impulse to make things up wasn’t the problem.  The problem was the medium.  It was bad for journalism, but it was great for creative writing.  I took classes with Susan Taylor Cheehak and T.C. Boyle and double majored in English. Boyle introduced me to literary writers like Louise Erdrich and Richard Ford.  Love Medicine and Rock Springs still astonish me.  So it wasn’t until in my junior year of college, that I realized what kind of writer I really wanted to be, a story teller.

3. Who helped you along the way and how?

Though I never became a journalist, the classes I took at USC were formative.  Most of my teachers were working writers.  They edited all their students’ work.  I’m so grateful to them now, though at the time I was often dismayed to get my story back covered in their vicious red pen.  They would cross off whole sentences, combine sentences, rearrange paragraphs; it was like butchery.  But because I wanted to be a better writer, I spent a lot of time analyzing the changes they made.  I began to see redundancies, wordiness, or even just lazy thinking.  I didn’t want to be a lazy thinker or writer.  And so I worked really hard to write better sentences, to find the most compelling image, to say what I needed to say in the least amount of words.

Anne Lamott’s essay on “shitty first drafts” has given me enormous comfort and courage over the years, too.  The blank page is not as scary if you accept its inevitable shittiness, and move on from there.  Sentences and stories are malleable.  This was counterintuitive to me at first because when you read a great book, it doesn’t seem as if had ever been a malleable thing.  Every word and phrase seems destined, inevitable – how could it ever have been otherwise?  And yet the writer, like all writers, had to wrestle and sweat and hack a path through the forest.

I had great teachers – Cheehak and Boyle, Lynn Freed, Max Byrd, Pam Houston.  I have a friend from graduate school who still reads my work. I have another friend who is a dedicated reader.  She’s always honest with me.  I also go to a writers’ group.  I give stories to my husband, too, but I cannot be in the house while he reads them.  I value his opinion; he has good instincts.

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

Flannery O’Connor inspires me.  She suffered from Lupus for years and died young.  She managed to write despite – or through – her physical ailments.  I find that admirable.  Actually I don’t read too much about the authors themselves.  I want to read their work.  I do like to read author interviews, mostly because I want to know how they do it and am hoping they’ll reveal all their secrets.

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

Has anyone ever given better advice to a young writer than Rilke?  When I’ve been disappointed in my own work, when I lack inspiration, when I’ve had a terrible day in which the work I’ve produced does not rise above the level of chicken scratch, I pull out Letters to a Young Poet.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

This is good advice for how to live.

On a more nuts and bolts level, I would tell an aspiring writer to develop a disciplined practice, whatever that may look like.  The only way I can get any writing done is if I get up at 4:30 and write while my kids are asleep.  That gives me an hour and a half to work, or two if the kids sleep in.  Though I often wish I had more time, I’ve gotten a surprising amount of work done that way.  After that, it’s off to work and school and the rest of my day is a blur.  That time frame works for me because I’m the daughter of a farmer who claims that people who get up after five have wasted half the day.  But if you’re the type of person who can’t imagine getting up before eight, find the time of the day when you are more likely to be creative.  Protect that time, build a fortress around it.  Guard it like the dragon guards his pearl.  Breathe fire if you have to.

I am still becoming a writer. I teach full time; I parent full time.
But these aspects of my life offer me an awareness of existence
that fuels my writing.

Ann Lightcap Bruno is an English teacher at the Wheeler School in Providence and lives in nearby Cranston, Rhode Island, with her husband and children. Her essays and stories have appeared in such publications as Memoir (and), Painted Bride Quarterly, Mississippi Review Online, Talking Writing, and Alimentum.

Featured at Talking Writing: This interview is the second in a new partnership with Talking Writing magazine. The How to Become a Writer Series here at PhD in Creative Writing now includes interviews with Talking Writing’s featured fiction writers.

Read Ann Lightcap Bruno’s story, “Open Bar” at Talking Writing. Excerpt:

I want her to say something to make me feel connected to then, to now, to her, to anything. All she can do is fake smile. “See you out there?”

The ladies’ room empties of nearly everyone. I feel like I am in the safe pouch of some animal, its pounding heart beating just outside the door. I rip off the old Bandaid fast and apply the new one. There is a spot of blood on the satin strap of my dyed-to-match sandal, so I blot at it with a wet paper towel. The stain spreads and turns orange. But the dress is long, and the pictures have been taken. It won’t matter.

Read more by and about Ann:

Story: Open Bar at Talking Writing

Essay: Notes on Hunger at Painted Bride Quarterly

Story: Graveside at Elimae

Essay: Defining Gluten at Alimentum

Essay: The Ache of Writing at Talking Writing

How Ann Lightcap Bruno 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 Ann for saying yes! And thanks to Talking Writing magazine for sharing their writers!  ‪

*     *     *

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I remember going, as a child, to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh and watching the art students sitting cross-legged in front of the glass cases, sketchbooks on their laps, drawing antelopes and mountain laurel. On my next trip, I took a pad and pencil but was too overwhelmed by my limited artistic ability to try my hand. So instead I jotted down the names of things: fennecs, desert biomes, wapiti, Ursus americanus. Back home in my room, I tried writing poems using the words I had found. I also might have tried to rhyme. The poems were worse than anything I might have drawn, but I liked the secrecy of scribbling lines and shoving them in my desk drawer where no one could see.  Later, during my freshman year of college, I saw a handsome boy from my acting class hunched over his journal, writing intently. So I started writing every day too because I wanted him to notice. He didn’t, but the writing became a habit I couldn’t shake.  I suppose my desire to be a writer was originally just a desire to look cool. But eventually it turned into a real love of words and sentences and stories. It turned into a compulsion to notice the crazy human dramas all around me.

“I love Virginia Hamilton Adair’s story of gaining notoriety in her eighties.”

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

First of all, I’m not a writer so much as I am a teacher. Teaching is what pays the bills, fills my hours, keeps me honest. I make myself do what I ask of them: take notebooks everywhere, write in small bursts, tackle ridiculous prompts. My great fortune is the opportunity to get paid to read and talk about The Sound and the Fury, Lolita, Hamlet, you name it.  “Delicious books,” as my daughter calls her favorites, are really what drive me to write. I want to make something this good. As a kid, I knew that my copy of Little Women was what I would save first in the event of a fire.  In high school Invisible Man rocked my small town sense of self, and in college I disobeyed my father and took two courses where Ulysses was required reading (he had told me to avoid the goddamned book at all costs). In grad school I became enamored of Dickens and his fat, sprawling plots. My own novel is still waiting to be born. In the meantime, I hack away at it and send out little things, stories and essays, during my summers when I have precious stretches of time. I set myself deadlines and make myself submit. I am still becoming a writer. I teach full time; I parent full time. But these aspects of my life offer me an awareness of existence that fuels my writing.

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

The poet Michael Harper inspired me in ways he will never know. I took an African-American literature class with him at Brown, and he made each of us visit him in his office. When I entered, he was hunting through towers of books for a copy of Huck Finn (one of his children needed it for English class at the high school where I now work). After telling me I should start coming to class on time, he asked me to give him my impressions of the course so far. I babbled some things about Morrison’s use of circle imagery in Beloved, about how much I loved Ralph Ellison. Later, when he wrote me a recommendation for grad school, Harper was so pleased with the eloquence of his letter that he called me to read it to me over the phone and to tell me he had sent a copy to Ellison (who figured in it prominently). I was giddy for weeks. I am also indebted to the poet Catherine Imbriglio whose class on lyric essays broke my work wide open, rattling my tired tendencies in really helpful ways. My husband also deserves a shout-out, as he is my go-to editor.

“I harbor a secret yearning to be Patti Smith.”

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

I am inspired by any writer who held a day job (William Carlos Williams, Anton Chekhov, Wallace Stevens). I love Virginia Hamilton Adair’s story of gaining notoriety in her eighties. I also tend to be drawn to the stories of writers with lives far more reckless, colorful, and drunken than mine. Mostly. I harbor a secret yearning to be Patti Smith. In the same acting class with the cute journal-writing boy, I encountered the early rock-and-roll plays of Sam Shepherd – Tooth of Crime, Cowboy Mouth. My favorite acting experiences were playing parts he had written for her. I wore tattered black clothes and dropped my voice a register or two. It was the same kind of identity shape-shifting I enjoy now when I write fiction.  My own life and aesthetic don’t resemble Smith’s in the slightest, but a girl can fantasize. I love her Keith Richard’s hair, her love affair with Robert Mapplethorpe, her far-reaching talent. When I read Just Kids, I appreciated the humor and earnestness with which she wrote about her desire to be an artist. Patti Smith embodies the prototypical American notion of self-reinvention in a way that doesn’t seem obnoxious to me in the slightest.

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

On the last day of my creative writing elective, I always read my students two passages.

The first is a section from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction where he says,” …in order to achieve mastery [a writer] must read widely and deeply, and must write not just carefully but continually, thoughtfully assessing and reassessing what he writes, because practice, for the writer as for the concert pianist, is the heart of the matter.”

The second is from Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Lurids Brigge, the famous description of the task of a writer that begins, “For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture which small flowers make when they open in the morning.” Rilke closes by telling us that it is not enough just to have these experiences or even memories of them; we must allow them to  change “into our very  blood” before we can write the first word.

My point in pairing these passages  is to send them off with the two-fold task of sitting in the chair, and of participating in the world.

As Gardner tells us, we have to read in order to grow as writers. We need to pay attention to the talents of others and read things that unsettle us and inspire us. Furthermore, we must cultivate a practice that forces us to write every day, in whatever stolen chunks of time we have, and to make ourselves work hard at the parts of writing that don’t come easily.

And as Rilke says, we also have to live our lives. We have to wander and observe and argue and love and mourn. And we have to let it all sink into our flesh until we have no other choice but to write about it. If we’re doing it right, the act of writing is also a process of discovery. Looking for the right words, putting the words together to make meaning, can allow us to better understand the whole business of being human.