Friday, December 28, 2007

Build the Room...and They Will Come

This also appears over on A Good Blog is Hard to Find.

My little town is growing up.

Last night, I attended a screening of a film at my local community theatre --not a movie at the multiplex!--but a a feature-length film produced and directed by Jeff Sumerel (a Greenville, SC native). To My Great Chagrin, a documentary about the comedian/performer Brother Theodore, has been selected by the Museum of Modern Art to have its World Premiere at their Opening Night of the 2008 Documentary Series in February, but we saw it here first.

Yep, she's got legs-- my town. Legs donned in hose and heels. Tonight starts the second annual French Film Festival featuring six award-winning French films. Also, Spam-a-lot is coming to our local performing arts center. And did I mention we are home to The Open Book, the largest independent bookstore in the state? Our museum has a permanent Wyeth collection. Our visual arts community and cool downtown galleries kick butt. There's a natural waterfall downtown--historical Cherokee trading center-- with a pedestrian bridge that's truly breathtaking; stroll across it most days and you'll hear people expressing their delight in several different languages. We've got a symphony and a ballet and the Handlebar, which regularly showcases the best indie bands around. And we have the Reading Room, a reading series, featuring regional authors.

And now, we have a writing program.

THE WRITING ROOM began two years ago with blind faith and gut instinct. I felt certain there was an untapped literary community in the Upstate of South Carolina, and, boy, was there. Without an area MFA program or university writing program, writers really had little in the way of workshops, or camaraderie. And we have some award-wining authors in town--such as Ashley Warlick and Scott Gould--who also happen to be fantastic teachers. So I approached the Emrys Foundation board, a local arts nonprofit, with a proposal to sponsor The Writing Room, and they--bless them--agreed.

In the fall of 2006, The Writing Room was officially launched and began offering writing workshops with a balance of craft discussions, writing exercises, and feedback. Our workshops are held at various locations, all donated spaces, in board rooms, conference rooms, university and high school class rooms, and businesses. Our goal? To build a community of writers who want to learn more about the craft of writing:
"If you’ve never written…we’ll get you started. You may even have an idea for a story, an essay, a novel, a poem, a children’s book…and want some guidance. If you’re an experienced writer… you’ll feel right at home. You’ll find attention, professional criticism, and inspiration.Everyone will find camaraderie. Our goal is to improve your writing and develop your style."
Our fiction workshops filled. There were waiting lists. We began to offer playwriting, creative nonfiction writing for children and young adults, poetry, and screenwriting. Our workshops are small-- no more than a dozen people. The workshop tuition allows us to pay our writing teachers a decent amount. (That's another goal: to pay writers what they're worth.) We offer one-day seminars on a variety of topics as well. Karin Gillespie's Saturday seminar for us last year on writing query letters was a huge success.

It's hard to believe The Writing Room is now offering a fourth round of workshops and seminars. Beginning in January, we’ll offer workshops for fiction and nonfiction writers. We’ll kick things off with a terrific one-day seminar on January 13, “Pitching and Placing Your Writing,” featuring award-winning North Carolina writer Quinn Dalton. For the second time, we’re offering a spring weekend screenwriting seminar.

We've got more planned for the spring, and perhaps on into the summer. Which reminds me--fellow authors--if you've got a book signing in the Palmetto State or you think you might be swinging in our direction, and you have an idea or two for a seminar you could lead, drop me a line. We'd love to have you join our community of writers. We're building a big room.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Picks and Pans

The Golden Compass is one of my favorite fantasy novels. Not since I read A Wrinkle in Time (in fifth grade) or 1984 (in high school) have I felt so transported into a "parallel" world. Too bad the movie felt rushed and jumpy, and if I hadn't read the book, I'd still be lost somewhere in the Arctic Circle. If you haven't yet read the novel-- or the His Dark Materials trilogy-- I'd skip the film.

Reading right now: The March by E.L. Doctorow, about Sherman's march through the South. I'm a great admirer of Doctorow's ability to weave skillful, moving portraits of historical figures-- who appear as fully-realized characters-- in his fiction. Or, as Publisher's Weekly puts it, his "gift for getting into the heads of a remarkable variety of characters, famous or ordinary."

I also recommend The War Of Art for any writer (or artist). Written by screenwriter and author Steven Pressfield (Legend of Bagger Vance), it's the testereone-charged, kick-ass version of The Artist's Way by Julie Cameron.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Soul Feed

My flowerbox has gone from high summer:

and hunkered down to cool-season annuals:

I leave you with an instant soul feed: reading Whitman's Leaves of Grass.
To think how much pleasure there is!
Have you pleasure from looking at the sky? Have you pleasure
from poems?
Do you enjoy yourself in the city? or engaged in business? or
planning a nomination and election? or with your wife and family?
Or with your mother and sisters? or in womanly housework? or
the beautiful maternal cares?

Friday, November 23, 2007

Notable Books?!

The New York Times has come out with its annual list of 100 Notable Books for the year.

Among the missing: AWAY by Amy Bloom (What are they, crazy? Leaving this one off was a mistake.)

and LOVING FRANK by Nancy Horan. Hard to believe this novel about Frank Lloyd Wright's lover, Mama Borthwick Cheny, wasn't included. It was a commercial and critical absorbing, thoughtful read. Too much femine self-acutalization on a man-heavy list, perhaps?
As Liesl Schillingein wrote her review for the NYT in September:
"Loving Frank, an enthralling first novel by Nancy Horan, is set at the same time as Doctorow's modern classic — the decade before World War I — and recreates its weld of fact and fiction, wrapped around the core theme of female self-actualization.... Mamah Borthwick Cheney wasn't just any woman, but Horan makes her into an enigmatic Everywoman — a symbol of both the freedoms women yearn to have and of the consequences that may await when they try to take them."

On the other hand, I was glad to see several books I love on the list:

A novel set in Buenos Aires in the 1970's.

a novel "narrated by a Pakistani who tells his life story to an unnamed American after the attacks of 9/11."

a "funny first novel, set in a white-collar office."

and WHAT IS THE WHAT. The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng: A Novel. By Dave Eggers. A novel about one of the Lost boys of Sudan.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

What Should I Read Next?

What Should I Read Next is a website that predicts--or recommends-- books you might like based on books you've read. Of course, your neighborhood indy bookseller can make such predictions in person, but it's cool to see what lists you come up with. (Similar to Amazon and other online sellers, but I assume with What I should Read Next there's no co-op or money exchanged...)

I'm pretty good at this...figuring out what authors or books people would love, based on their reading tastes. It's great fun at cocktail least until I get my Tarot card reading up to snuff.

So here's a recommendation from me to you: If you're a Picoult fan and liked this book, try THE LIFE BEFORE HER EYES by Laura Kasischke (soon to be a movie called "Bloom"). Both novels explore a similar "Columbine massacre" event. Kasischke is a poet as well as prose writer, and her writing is lyrical and emotionally powerful.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Writing Space

Ode to the Laptop

Some writers I know like to write in public spaces.

The din of conversation, the aroma of roasted coffee beans and baked three-berry muffins, the hiss of the capacino machine, the pragmatic ding of the cash register. . . because, you has a way of inserting itself... everywhere.

But when the croissants and the eavesdropping prove too tempting to resist (those delicious snippets of people's lives! Those calorie-laden feathery layers of pastry!), when the incessant --and insistant--ding ding ding of capitalism punctures your aesthetic haze, isn't it nice to boot up in your own kitchen?

Case in point: My Kitchen Table Writing Space.

Cherished Apple laptop, a pile of New York Times and Greenville News, Buddha, my late grandmother's vintage tablecloth, collected cobalt blue bottles from flea market, lucky bamboo and propagated cardinal flower, the last of the summer flowers--zinnia, veronica, black-eyed Susan--cup o'coffee (shade grown, a souvenier cup from the Eudora Welty Mississippi Writing Conference), stuff I'm researching (Interlibrary loan books about the 1929 communist-strike in Gastonia), Ragtime, a novel by E.L Doctorow that I just read that is *&!#%! genius (but everybody already knows that), a hawk's feather, fortune cookies, a hanging handmade cool thing my neighbor Raina gave me. Sound effects: bird songs from bird feeder outside of window.

A room with a view, anyway.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Secret Keepers

Today I'm the guest blogger over on A GOOD BLOG IS HARD TO FIND...talking about secret keeping:

Ever since I found the letter from J. Edgar Hoover in my grandmother's trunk, I've been thinking a lot about secrets...

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Back from the Grand Strand

I just returned from the South Carolina Writers Workshop conference at Myrtle Beach, and I'm still recovering. Well, that's not the right term, really. Sounds like I'm "in recovery"-- a detoxing celeb. The conference was 3 days, fabulously organized, and chock full of workshops. It was a working weekend for me-- I gave three workshops ( 7 hours worth), critiqued 11 one-to-one manuscripts, and "hosted" two dinner tables. The best part about Myrtle Beach in October is that it doesn't look like Myrtle Beach-- there aren't that many people around. The place has been devoured by developers and in warmer months is teeming with tourists, but in the off season, you can actually glimpse sea oats and sandpipers beyond the dinosaur putt-putt. Mary Alice Monroe was a terrific keynote speaker. Her novels reflect her ardent love of the environment, especially the low country of SC...I plan to read Sweet Grass soon.

The immensely talented Robert Morgan--of Gap Creek fame-- was there, too. Of course, I'm partial to a writer who has such an uncanny sense of place...especially when that place is the hills of the Carolinas. His latest is a biography of Daniel Boone, which is drawing accolades, and looks to be as absorbing as any of Morgan's novels. "Forget the coonskin cap; he never wore one." Now that's a first line.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Debra Spark's Super Smart Essay on Suspense and Surprise

My first semester as an MFA student, I lucked out big time: my advisor was Debra Spark, whose fiction and nonfiction is terrific. Her essays on writing are just unbelievably sharp. Her latest article, "And Then Something Happened," appears in the current issue of The Writer's Chronicle:
"I believe than when it comes to snobbery about genre fiction, I am the reigning queen, yet I'd like to tout the virtues of suspense and surprise. Not psychological revelations or character complications, but an interesting shift in events, of fiction that is structured to make one curious, sometimes desperately curious, about what happens next." p. 74
Debra provides a compelling investigation into the craft of suspense in "character-driven" literary fiction as she discusses "the writerly embarrassment about plot." Quoting from E.M. Forster, Lily King, Dan Chaon and Laura Kasischke, she offers an unflinching look at what works and what doesn't when it comes to "creating a suspenseful piece of literature." Chaon's comments about how he organized the narrative of his novel You Remind Me of Me is fascinating; he was influenced by the masterful structure of Michael Cunningham's The Hours and "was interested in what serial TV was doing--The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, ER. How they cut up multiple story lines and juggled, how the create intense suspense by crosscutting."

How much information do we, as writers, give to the reader? How do we structure events? How do we parcel out narratives among a constellation of characters? How will the parts connect (or how will reader make the connections?) "All this has to do with time," Debra writes, "and how we are going to manipulate time."

Thursday, October 4, 2007

I'm Not Pulling Your Leg...This is REAL

This article from my local newspaper is priceless. I... didn't make it up. Oh, but I sure would love to claim it.

Upstate man gets leg back
Man who found amputated limb in barbecue cooker he bought threatens lawsuit
Thursday, October 4, 2007 - 2:00 am

Monday, October 1, 2007

AWAY...Mapping the Travel Novel

I just finished reading AWAY by Amy Bloom when I happened to hear her interviewed on NPR's All Things Considered. I loved the novel--about a young Russian immigrant named Lillian Leyb who strikes out across North America toward Siberia to find her little girl. AWAY was engrossing, and also filled with the beautifully crafted sentences and scenes that Bloom is known for, and plenty of memorable characters (Gumdrop, the Seattle prostitute. You won't forget her). As an "epic adventure," AWAY chronicles Lillian's odyssey, and each chapter eventually means another stop on the map and another close call. Which got me thinking of the odyssey in contemporary novels--Charles Frazier's COLD MOUNTAIN, and Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD, not to mention Kerouac, and Nabokov's LOLITA. The structure is ancient as myth, tried and true. And from a novelist's perspective the American road trip novel-- picaresque or dark adventure-- provides a tempting structure on which to hang (or fill?) one's prose.

A friend of mine, who is writing her fourth novel, says structure remains the hardest part of writing for her. Timelines, setting, plot points...yeesh! But with a travel novel, you have setting--already mapped!--you have time, you have a character yearning for something at the end of her harrowing journey, and you know it all before you begin chapter one. Still, Amy Bloom mentioned she had a poor sense of direction (which made me feel better...I rent a car with GPS and still manage to get lost...after awhile the voice just sighs and says whatever.) Amy Bloom had to pin up maps on the wall to remind herself where Lillian would venture next. And still, the author agonized:

When Bloom began writing Away, she didn't have a clear ending in mind. But gradually, one did reveal itself to her.

Bloom says she took three months off entirely from working on the book, "to wander around my house, tearing my hair out." She would take breaks late at night and go to the baseball field near her house to smoke cigarettes and kick around some dirt.

"'Doomed, doomed, doomed,' is what would be going through my head," Bloom recalls.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Willa Cather's Beautifully Crafted Sentence

I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do. --Willa Cather

Yes. Precisely. Gorgeous. True.

At the same time my grandmother was in hospice last February, a pine tree in my front yard was dying. Just all of a sudden. Could have been the ice storm, could have been the tap root was damaged from the new water line, could have been...age. It was 50 years old at least, and that's way up there for a pine.

Anyway, it started shedding sheets of bark-- peeled back like skin-- and there was the white, tender woody flesh underneath. Exposed. The pine beetles and the insects burrowed in, and the woodpeckers after them, and the tree, somehow, put out gobs of pine cones-- they covered the yard...and when the tree surgeon came he said-- yeah, they'll do that-- fruit like crazy right before they die. And then he pronounced the tree dead, and brought his cherry picker and stump grinder, but I waded through all those pine cones-- heaped up, the last gasp of a pine and I thought how the tree had put all its last energy in propagating the next forest, and I found that Darwinian and poignant and comforting all at once. And then I went to my grandmother's funeral.

So...resignation and trees...yeah. The Pecan in my backyard obviously agrees.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

"She picked me! She picked me!"

This bell pepper is just damned charming. While volunteering at the community garden last Saturday (trying to get in my Master Gardner volunteer hours..not easy) I was harvesting the peppers and, lo and behold, there he was GRINNING at me, exclaiming (if vegetables truly exclaim and clearly they can) that it's such an honor to be part of Project Host's meals for the hungry, even if that part means being tossed in a salad.

I assumed that he (and of course the pepper isn't a HE...vegetables don't have genders...except, maybe Italian eggplant or the occasional lascivious, waxed cucumber) was only too glad to be plucked and carted off to the soup kitchen, chortling the whole way...beside his pal the scarlet red tomato. Turns out (the Silver Queen corn told me--such a gossip, that one-- in one ear and out the other, and not a kernel of truth) the real reason this jolly little pepper was laughing and the tomato blushing? They saw the salad dressing.
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