Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Beans & Greens

Ah, New Year's Day. One of my favorite holidays. Better than Christmas or Thanksgiving. There's none of that frenzied pace, but a day of R&R--at least in my house: Relaxation and Resolutions.

Relaxing-- post-party-- from the night before (with maybe a hair-of-the-dog Mimosa to kick off the day.) And then a languorous afternoon of reflection and writing down (or about) the year's resolutions.

And of course, on the stove, big pots of collard greens (seasoned with olive oil, garlic, crushed red pepper) and black-eyes peas (soaked overnight, then cooked for hours). Corn bread baking, and potatoes mashed and buttered. Also, something chocolate.

Beans and greens on New Year's Day bring good fortune and wealth-- the "greens" are cash, the peas are coins. I've heard this traditional menu started after the Civil War, when collard/turnip/mustard greens and black-eyed peas were about the only crops left in the South.
I wouldn't start a new year without it.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Every family has one. A little embarrassing perhaps, baffling to outsiders, but it persists nonetheless.

In my family it is pink and cold.

Read the rest over at A Good Blog is Hard to Find, where' I'm guest blogging. Happy weekend.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Writing Room: January Classes

The Writing Room is a program we started here in Upstate SC offering classes to writers of all levels. It's sponsored by the nonprofit Emrys Foundation. January's offerings include a seminar on dialogue by yours truly and a 9-week advanced class, taught by novelist Ashley Warlick, for folks who have a manuscript. Here's a link for more information.


Writing Dialogue
with Mindy Friddle

When dialogue in fiction and creative nonfiction is working, it helps to create rich, believable characters and drives the story forward. So how do you write believable dialogue? When should we hear a character speak? And how might dialogue be used to complicate a character or story? In this seminar, we'll examine dialogue in several fiction and nonfiction pieces. We'll discuss how to create conversations between characters that sound spontaneous and lifelike--not monotonous. Participants will be invited to do in-class writing exercises designed to help write sharper, richer dialogue that rings true, reveals character, creates tension, and adds depth through subtext. This is designed to be a fun, informal seminar for writers at all levels who are looking for fresh approaches to writing dialogue.

Level: All levels, Beginner to Advanced
Saturday, January 17
2:00- 4:00 pm
Location: Innovate Building Conference Room, 148 River Street, Greenville, SC
Fee: $25; $20 Emrys member

Works in Progress: Focusing on Your Book Length Manuscript
with Ashley Warlick

This popular class is for experienced writers with a book-length manuscript of either fiction or nonfiction in progress. Each student will submit 40 to 50 pages of their work to be closely read and carefully considered by both the instructor and the group, providing the center of one full class period's workshop. Through constructive, frank critique, both given and received, students will learn to identify and address what works in a manuscript and what does not. Expect to come away from the class with specific reading assignments and concrete recommendations on how to improve your novel, memoir, or collection.

Level: Advanced
This workshop may be taken more then once.
9-week class, 3 hours each class,
Starts January 20
Tuesdays,6:00 - 9:00 p.m.
Location:Furman University, Modern Languages Department
Fee: $360; $340 Emrys member
Class size limited to 8 people.
Registration [and the waiting list] for this class closes January 16.

Seminars and Workshops, Spring 2009
[To be announced soon]

Monday, December 15, 2008

Writing a Novel in 42 Minutes...per day

The December issue of my Warren Wilson MFA alumni newsletter was chock full of great stuff...but I just had to share this profile of novelist Vyvyane Loh, author of Breaking the Tongue. Doctor, choreographer, animal rescuer and writer-- Vyvyane's secret to writing novels is carving out 42 minutes for writing every day. Read this interview ( a great conversation between two writers conducted by fellow WW MFAer Cindy Phoel), and it will be hard to complain about not having enough time to write. Really--it's encouraging.

Guggenheim Fellow & Wally fiction writer
Vyvyane Loh talks about her 42 minutes of daily writing and her 12 pet bunnies.

When the Boston Globe profiled Vyvyane Loh (Warren Wilson MFA fiction ’01) on the 2004 publication of her first novel, Breaking the Tongue, they spoke of her as a dedicated physician, accomplished choreographer, and critically acclaimed novelist. “She’s All That,” the piece was titled, and for those of us who know Vyvyane, this seemed like an apt title. Four years later, we find Vyvyane collecting a Guggenheim Fellowship while she puts the finishing touches on her second novel—proving that she’s all that, and then some. In a conversation with her Wally friend and classmate Cindy Phoel (Warren Wilson MFA fiction ’03), Vyvyane talks about her 42-minute-a-day writing habit and her secret desire to be—of all things—a poet!

Cindy: A few months ago, we were talking about whether—and how much—we were writing. I was failing to get enough writing done, and you told me I was setting my goals too high. You shared with me your own strategy, which mirrors the strategy you use with your patients who are trying to lose weight. It’s a strategy I think every writer strapped for time (certainly all moms!) should know.

Vyvyane: I try to set laughable goals. 20 minutes of writing per day, or 40 minutes if it’s an easy day. I tell my patients who are trying to lose weight to walk for NO MORE THAN 5 minutes for the first week of their weight loss program, and they always come back saying they felt so silly only exercising for 5 minutes that they walked for 10 minutes, or 20, or even 30 minutes. The extra time is fine, but you get points for doing the minimum, which is how I try to set up my writing time as well. I write for 42 minutes each morning—the extra 2 minutes makes me feel very virtuous. I use a timer and there are lots of days when I have one eye fixed on the seconds ticking away and one eye on the screen, and when the timer goes off—relief! I’m done! Yippee yay!

Can you honestly say that your second novel—which is quite long, perhaps 500 pages—was written on 20 or 42 minutes a day? Or were there periods where you were writing more than that?

I did write lots in spurts—50 pages over 3 days, 25 pages over a couple of days, but most of it was written in my 42 minutes per day!

I am reminded of the spin class you used to teach—a hard-driving hour of cycling at 8:00 on Saturday mornings. One day, I found myself sitting in front of these two burley guys, who obviously thought this would be a walk in the park. They chit-chatted their way through the warm up and into the first song, and then after a bit of panting, I heard, “She’s kicking my ass!”

Yeah, I figured we should work as hard as possible for the hour and then forget about it for the rest of the day. It’s not too different with writing. There’s so little time to write, so I try to go full steam ahead for the 42 minutes and then not agonize over not doing more for the rest of the day. Remember our motto of keeping the small picture in view and forgetting the big picture. I think you told me that one time, and I keep reminding myself now when I feel overwhelmed: just stay with the small picture.

It’s a bit paradoxical, isn’t it, that you say you focus on the small picture, and yet your work is decidedly big picture. Your first novel was set during the Japanese invasion of Singapore during WWII. And this second novel tackles suffering in Rwanda, Haiti, and Afghanistan. Time and place and how your story reflects or interprets the world are very important to you. Can you talk about this?

Yes, I suppose I do keep the big picture in mind when I write. I am always conscious of how various events in my book are seen through the lens of what is happening in the world. I have never forgotten what I learned when I was a Classics student in college: that when Agamemnon left Greece to fight in the Trojan War, he chose—not a general, not a politician—a poet to rule in his place, because he felt that the poet was the moral conscience of the people and that this conscience would steer his kingdom on the right path. That really stuck with me, and it’s always at the back of my mind when I’m writing.

Let’s talk for a moment about starting places. We’re often encouraged to start with character or place—even an image that ignites us. For you, though, the impetus is theme. Can you talk about this?

You’re right that I don’t start with character or plot. I tend to start with ideas and yes, I suppose, theme. I spend a lot of time reading non-fiction on things or ideas that fascinate me and sometimes they captivate me so much that I want to write a book about them. And often, it’s because there’s something that I’m struggling with—a concept or an idea that I want to embrace but can’t for whatever reason—that I end up writing about it.

It feels a bit narrow to categorize you as a fiction writer. With Breaking the Tongue, you were certainly a historian. And with your new novel, you have taken on the role of translator—a role I think you’ve particularly enjoyed.

I’ve been interested in literary translation ever since I took a translation seminar with Rosanna Warren in college and read George Steiner’s After Babel. I still go back to that book every year, believe it or not. I taught myself Portuguese because I wanted to translate Drummond and Pessoa and Machado de Assis. My current book deals with translating a poem by Paul Celan. I wrote poetry when I was in college. I only started writing fiction about a year and a half before Warren Wilson. I was tempted to apply in Poetry but chickened out. There are lots of things I would love to get round to writing if I had the time (or if Oprah would give me a break): poetry, more translations, plays.

One last question: You have no fewer than twelve bunnies in your house. These are animals that you’ve fostered or adopted when they needed homes. Is this yet another example of everything-Vyvyane-does-she-does-with-intensity, or is this your moral conscience at work? Or is this, perhaps, your human attraction to things soft and fuzzy?

I have 12 bunnies, 1 dog and 1 parakeet, 1 hus-bun. Cleaning up after them takes 2 hours of my day! (Well, I’ve sort of trained the hus-bun to fend for himself). I’m a big animal advocate. I think it’s part moral conscience—I hate the way we’ve messed up Nature and blame her for everything. I mean, you’ve heard of people who move to the wilderness and then complain about those damn bears in their garbage all the time and then plot to shoot them to make the place “safer.” The bunnies I’ve adopted were mostly Easter dumps. They have wonderful personalities and one of them, Oolong, is my personal paper shredder. I show her stuff that I’ve written that I’m not too hot about and she chomps on it and poops it out later. Her way of saying, “This stuff is s**t.” Literally.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Will Write for Food:the return of the FWP

Saul Bellow. John Steinbeck. Zora Neale Hurston. Ralph Ellison. Stud Terkel. They're all famous for participating in The Federal Writers' Project (FWP), which, as you recall, was a United States federal government project to fund written work and support writers during the Great Depression. It was part of the Works Projects Administration, a New Deal program. It was a fabulous success.

With waves of laid-off journalists (the Chicago Tribuen going under? WTF?)and talented writers, historians, editors, researchers around these days, there's word it might be time for another FWP.

Here's an article on why President-elect Obama should resurrect the WPA and bail out laid-off journalists and a cheeky essay on how a modern FWP might work (bottom line: writers aren't in it for the money anyway. They are compelled to write. They can't help it.)

I think this is an excellent idea. I just have one question. Where do I sign up?

Monday, December 8, 2008

captivating captions

My interest was piqued a couple of weeks ago by the above cartoon, because a caption flew into my head when I saw it:
But I thought you always wanted a lot of kids.

Since then, I turn to to the back of each new issue of the New Yorker so I can see who won the weekly cartoon caption contest. In fact, I've started to spend way too much time trying to think up pithy, biting captions. Some people have crossword puzzles or that sudoku math thingy, but this is a lot more fun. It's also way harder.

Who would have known the contest has its own obsessive subculture? Here's an essay in Slate about how to enter and win. Each week something like 6,000 people submit captions. Some really lucky (or long-suffering, depending on your point of view) staffer's sole job is to pluck out 50 from that brier patch, which are then weeded down to three finalists by a Wise, Knowing Editor. The public/readers are invited to vote on the winner.

I didn't send it in the goat cartoon caption because it was too late. So I just decided to wait until the next week's cartoon, not knowing that the chance of an ideal caption popping in your head is a rare, joyful occurrence. Like falling in love. Or having your book optioned for film. Or finally voting for a guy who actually wins the White House. So. Here is the actual caption winner and two finalists for that cartoon:

First Place

"Come sweater season, you'll be back."

Second Place

"Could you bring me back a goat?"

Third Place

"You're the one who left your fertility drugs on the counter."

A couple of weeks ago, this cartoon appeared, and my caption--that I actually submitted-- was: It's our new line of free-range breasts and thighs.
I'm sure I was overly fond of the "line" pun--as in dance/ chorus line... But it didn't make it out of the thousands of other brilliant witticisms. I have to admit the three finalists have been blessed by the caption fairy. My favorite: I'd suggest you keep them away from the gingerbread men.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

As Dorothy Parker Once Said...

Ooooh this sounds like fun. If I lived in Brooklyn OR if I had one of those Ford/Chrysler/GM corporate jets, I'd definitely be attending tonight's Dorothy Parker Society party. Here, from the Dorothy Parker Facebook page (surely she'd love FB if she were alive today), are details:
Thursday, Dec. 4, 7-11 p.m., join us at the Galapagos Art Space, 16 Main Street in DUMBO, with Michael Arenella and his 11-piece Dreamland Orchestra for a festive evening of music and dancing. Come out in Twenties attire too, if you can manage it. Tickets are $12; cash bar. This is the orchestra that performed on Governors Island last summer; they are the best Roaring Twenties orchestra in the city.
Oh, well. Guess I'll make a martini (two at the most*), crank up Ella singing Cole Porter on Itunes, and read a few of my favorite DP quotes:

If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.

Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.

Take care of luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves.

Salary is no object; I want only enough to keep body and soul apart.

*I like to have a martini, Two at the very most. After three I'm under the table, after four I'm under my host.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Venus, Jupiter, the moon...and me

Jupiter, Venus and the moon put on quite a show last night. And if you'd had a glass or two of pinot, you were probably smiling back. Yes, you were grinning, swaying a little as you stared up, braced by the cold air.

Apparently, Venus was once habitable for a brief 400 million years, with beautiful oceans, but it was constantly bombarded with asteroids, which changed the atmosphere. Now it's dry, with an average temp of 850 degrees F. As soon as scientists come up with the doo-dad thingy that controls weather and atmosphere, Venus will be the first to be colonized. Egad, hate that word,"colonize." Reminds me of raping, pillaging, stealing. Not that there are any Venus creatures to rape or pillage. Just hope it won't be a planet full of golf courses and casinos-- a gated Vegas. We-- human beings--are evolving into a higher consciousness aren't we? Maybe Venus can be a big ol' meditation/yoga/retreat center left natural and untouched. Or better yet--move all the shopping centers and gold courses to Venus so Earth can heal and go wild again.

So what does this have to do with anything? Not much, other than it was an awesome sight, and talking about the heavens is a good way to procrastinate from the task at hand on this bright morning on Earth. When it comes to procrastinating about writing, I can get pretty creative. When I get desperate I start to clean. When I have a clean house-- I'm not writing--or not writing enough. Which reminds me, I'm out of Swiffers again.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Book and Hammer

After the rise of the automobile, the railroad barons who stayed in business realized they were in the transportation business--not the train business. Movies didn't silence the radio. And as James Gleick smartly points out in his NYT Op-Ed piece on Sunday, bicycles "invented in a world without automobiles," still outsell cars.

Reading from a computer screen, listening to an audio download on your ipod, or cracking a hardcover-- it's all reading.

Not to be Pollyannish about it (beats cynicism!), but the digital paradigm shift is bringing about unprecdented opportunties for folks in the storytelling business.

One of the best discussions I've read so far on this is Gleick's piece. You might say he really nails the issue: "As a technology, the book is like a hammer. That is to say, it is perfect: a tool ideally suited to its task. Hammers can be tweaked and varied but will never go obsolete."

Publishers may or may not figure out how to make money again (it was never a good way to get rich), but their product has a chance for new life: as a physical object, and as an idea, and as a set of literary forms. Read the article here.
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