So I’m Taking This Class

It’s been decades since I’ve taken a weekly class with writing assignments. My days are spent at work in a cubicle downtown, my evenings as much as possible on my writing—right after doing the NYT crossword puzzle online. That little celebratory ditty that plays upon correct completion of the puzzle is a nice reward, but also a signal that recess is over and I’d better get to work, which actually means a lot of dithering at the keyboard and a painfully slow stringing together of words on the screen. Maybe I’d get more done if I did take a class after all.

Each quarter I read the Hugo House course offerings and think about which classes I would take if I could spare the time. I linger over the descriptions of certain classes—the ones focused on close reading of the masters or a class outside of my comfort zone such as writing the surreal. But invariably I opt for the one-day class if I opt for any class at all. That way, my time commitment is minimal and there are no assignments to add to a never-ending to-do list.

This time though, I finally signed up for a multi-week class because it was just too irresistible: The You Review of Books taught by Paul Constant and Martin McClellan.
I’d written a couple of reviews for a community paper without really knowing what I was doing. I figured it was time to learn.

I was delighted to find some friends in the class: Theo Nestor whom I’d heard so much about and finally got to meet at a Hedgebrook event late last summer; Martha Kreiner whom I’d run into at several literary events and then two summers ago had the pleasure of being her dorm neighbor at the Port Townsend Writers Conference; Heather Jacobs, editor of Big Fiction, whom I met in a class taught by Michael Byers over a decade ago; and Bonnie Rough whom I’ve had the pleasure of knowing through a writers support group.

I’m looking forward to getting to know the other writers in the class and their work. For starters, one of our classmates Lisa Gold, researcher and rare book expert, wrote this excellent review on the cheerful children’s book about George Washington’s happy slaves, which Scholastic recently withdrew because the book “may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves.”

We’re halfway through the six-week class and I’m learning lots, though of course I haven’t really learned it until I’ve applied it and I’m still working on that. The weekly assignments are fun but a challenge to pull off.

Paul and Martin say that “book reviews should be beautiful pieces of writing in response to beautiful pieces of writing.”

They practice what they teach. Here’s a beauty by Paul about Tom Hart’s new graphic novel Rosalie Lightning about the heartbreaking aftermath of his toddler daughter’s unexplainable death.

Here’s one by Martin on The Truth about White People by Lola E. Peters, a clear and thoughtful piece that also offers a challenge to readers that goes beyond reading Peters’s book.

Read these and see what we aspire to in class.

Posted in Books and Authors, Miscellaneous Musings, On Writing

Some of My Favorite Reads of the Year

One year quite a few years ago, I committed to reading a book a week, which only amounts to fifty-two books for the year. Nowadays, I’m lucky to reach three books a month. (Don’t check my Goodreads entries because I’m terrible about updating my list.) It’s a sad number given the stack of books on my to-read shelf. But here are my favorite reads this year—five story collections plus two others.

The Border is Burning by Ito Romo—These are very short stories, gritty and stark, about the hard-bitten lives of people along the border between the United States and Mexico. My favorite stories were “Baby Money,” about how a two-headed baby in formaldehyde affects two characters, one on either side of the border; and “El Gato,” in which a woman leaves her man after evidence of his infidelity: cat hairs in his underwear. Cats subsequently factor into the story at cunningly-placed intervals.

People Like Me by Margaret Malone—I had the pleasure of reading with Margaret Malone at Lit Fix in early December. She read an excerpt from the story “The Only One,” told from the point of view of a middle-school girl who is wrestling with such life issues as the grossness of tongues in kissing, her ever-growing boobs, and the dissolution of her family. The character and voice were irresistible, so I bought the book to finish that story and read all the others. Very smart and sharply written, these stories are dark and humorous, sad and hopeful. Despite their flaws, you are drawn to these characters who are mostly girls and young women trying to find their way to being themselves.

Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis—This has been called both a novel and a collection of stories. Either way, it’s captivating both for the characters and for Landis’s sharp and vivid scenes. We see Rainey and her friends Tina and Leah navigate their way from their tough-talking, tightrope-walking, limit-testing fifteen-year-old selves to their mid-twenties as they continue to sort through the effects of an adolescence made bewildering and sometimes hostile by the self-absorbed or negligent adults in their lives. Landis has a splendid sense of both the comic and the heartrending.

Thunderstruck by Elizabeth McCracken—A favorite author of mine, McCracken delivers her trademark humor, irony, and delightfully odd or troubled characters in these often dark but empathic stories. Here’s an example of her killer language: She looked like the plump-cheeked naughty heroine of a German children’s book who’d just sawed off her own braids with a knife, looking for the next knifeable place. Her expression dared you to teach her a lesson.

The Water Museum by Luis Alberto Urrea—I love how widely these stories range in character, setting, and style, how deftly Urrea moves across borders, both physical and cultural, how he blends the humorous and the tragic. The two-page long “Carnations,” conveys so much in so few lines about grief, loss, and relationships. The much longer “Mountains Without Number” features characters as weathered and rugged as the scenery and intertwines the personal with the historic. And a bonus of the book for me was seeing my home town National City in the title of one of the stories.

These last two aren’t story collections, but they’re part of my favorites list for this year.

The Ghosts Who Travel with Me: A Literary Pilgrimage through Brautigan’s America by Allison Green – As Green travels the route through Idaho Richard Brautigan described in his book Trout Fishing in America, she nimbly braids the stories of her adolescent obsession with Brautigan, her musings on her own Idaho family roots, and her awakenings to feminism and her lesbian identity. The writing is lovely, infused with humor and wise and warm reflection.

The Robot Scientist’s Daughter by Jeannine Hall Gailey—One of my favorite local poets, Jeannine Hall Gailey combines science, the environment, and feminism in these poems about growing up downwind of the Oak Ridge National Labs. Included in the collection are multiple poems with the title “The Robot Scientist’s Daughter,” but with variations like isotopes of an element or mutations of a gene, each differentiated by a parenthetical tagline such as (the other), (villainess), (medical wonder), (ghost in the machine), and many others.

Posted in Books and Authors

Ragdale Delights

Among the pleasures of an artist residency are the artists you meet there. During my recent Ragdale residency, I landed among a most congenial and talented bunch. It was great learning about and from them. If you don’t already know these artists, let me introduce you to them.

Virginia Bell—Poet and author of From the Belly (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2012)

Articulate with a formidable breadth of knowledge, this is a woman whose intellect might scare me if I were still at an age when such things scared me. Now I’m just duly impressed. She’s writing a fascinating memoir that involves repression and pets. Okay, that’s a deliberately gross simplification that doesn’t do justice to the nuanced emotional complexity of the work. I just don’t want to give anything away. Know that it’s sure to be a stunner, judging by her poetry. Also that Bloomsbury sounding name of hers gives instant cred. And she looks good in a hat.

Lauren Levato Coyne—Visual artist and writer

This exuberant young woman had the best dinner time stories, one of which I have permission to use in some future fiction of mine so will not describe the story here lest you take it for yourself. Suffice it to say, the story has an entomological inspiration and great potential to exploit all five senses and possibly a sixth one as well. A writer and visual artist, Lauren delighted us with both talents. She also exhibited great balance on the Ragdale prairie where she performed handstands in full view of perplexed deer bystanders.

Christine Koubek—Writer and teacher

I vote her Most Radiant. Her face and personality beam with goodwill and generosity. She’s a travel writer who has recently also turned to fiction. She’s writing a novel based on a captivating personal experience. Again, not to give anything away, I’ll just throw it out there that there are nuns in parts of it. Jeff O’Neal at Book Riot says about his fascination for novels with nuns (and priests): I think it is the dual forces of constraint and passion that hook me. Same goes for me, and from the excerpts Christine read to us at Ragdale, its’ clear that she’s handling these forces with deft and grace.

Michael Remson—Composer whose next opera will premiere in June.

He attended his first opera and his first rock concert at age nine as nine-year-olds are wont to do. He also developed an early enthusiasm for old radio shows. He would lie under the dining room table listening to his father’s collection of recordings. This early grasp of words, story, music, and performance—how could they not culminate in a career as a composer and librettist? I like to picture this grown man even today lying on the floor, eyes closed, his whole being attuned to inspiration, then madly creating art, before taking a break to make a sandwich with a dollop of the Shur Good mustard that was a Ragdale kitchen staple.

Christine Rice—Writer whose story collection Swarm Theory is due out in 2016

Responsible for the term jackhammer being employed with frequency during dinner conversations, Chris also used her literary license to coin new words as in “he was brighting me.” I know. It makes you wonder whether our dinner talk was suitable for all ages. I assure you, it was. Only a deviant would think otherwise. Anyway, how could anyone attribute any but the most inoffensive to the innocently impish facial expressions that accompanied her word inventions? Invention serves Chris well in the dystopian novel she’s working on. I’m inspired to coin a new word to describe the story and characters: captismatic.

Annita Sawyer—Psychologist and award-winning memoirist

This remarkable woman published her first book this year at age 72. It’s called Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass: A Psychologist’s Memoir. In addition to this highly praised book, which won the Santa Fe Writer’s Project Grand Prize, she wrote a bewitching piece of fiction that she shared with us during residency. I often ate my oatmeal with sliced bananas while she ate her toast with peanut butter and honey in the Ragdale kitchen. Sometimes we talked. Sometimes we read—her a book of essays, me a book of fiction. Either way, it was a pleasure starting my day in the company of this woman.

Emily Tedrowe—Writer working on her third book

We only had Emily’s genial company for a week. At dinner one night she revealed her Jane Smiley crush. So here’s a Jane Smiley quote, and if you’re an artist other than a writer, just replace book with the art you produce and reader with your particular audience.

“…all you really need to have for your book: just one reader out there who loves it.”

Finally, many thanks to the Ragdale staff, several of whom are artists. A special shout-out to Resident Liaison Eddie Morfin for sharing his work-in-progress with us and for considering us “sort of interesting.”

Posted in Events

Who’s Who in (My) Fiction

As I anticipate the publication of my next book Hola and Goodbye from Carolina Wren Press a year from now, I also anticipate the assumptions that the readers among my family will surely make about the characters in the book—that this or that character resembles this or that family member.

Let’s test those assumptions. My book is a collection of short stories about three generations of a family, the first of which emigrates from Mexico.

I have a mother and aunts. There are mothers and aunts in my stories. Coincidence? You decide.

I have sisters. There are lots of sisters in my stories. Again, coincidence?

I have a brother. There are no brothers in this story collection. What?

There’s a grandmother in these stories. I had a grandmother or two. One came from Mexico. Yes, the grandmother in my stories came from Mexico. Okay, busted. I took a few details from her life—that she worked in a fish cannery, that she never learned English, that she made her tortillas by hand. All of which fit the description of thousands of Mexican immigrants.

This is my cousin Johnny. He was called Johnny Boy when we were growing up. My family produced mostly girls. The few males in the family were tagged with a celebratory emphasis on their gender—Boy! Also, there was the affectionate mijo.

I will admit that I did steal something from Johnny’s life for a story in the collection. Who could resist the nickname Señor Wonderful, my cousin’s moniker when he tended bar and emceed karaoke sessions back in the day? But really, that’s where the similarities between my cousin Johnny and my character Tony Camacho end. The rest is fiction, folks.


Posted in Miscellaneous Musings

How I’m Learning to Teach Things I Didn’t Know I Knew

There’s an expectation that when you’ve had a book published you know enough to teach someone else how to do the same—not just the part about actually getting the thing into print, but the craft part too. Since my novel came out in 2011, I’ve been invited on occasion to teach a class or give a lecture—just a 60 to 90 minute stint, nothing terribly taxing or overwhelming. Except that I’d never before done such a thing. Though years ago I received a master’s degree in education, taught ESL classes for a short period of time, and have for over two decades managed an environmental education program, my time in front of a classroom has been limited and none of that time was spent discussing the elements of fiction. I don’t have an MFA so my education in writing has been an assortment of classes, workshops, and conferences. The idea of teaching others something about writing was more than a little scary. What exactly did I know and how could I articulate and convey it to others? Luckily, I have had some talented and skillful teachers and workshop leaders, not to mention a talented and skillful writing group. Both have shown me ways to consider whether a story is working. Mostly, it boils down to these few questions: What is the story doing, what is it trying to do, and what’s missing?

Reading is another teacher. Most of the time I rush along in my reading, eager for the story and then upon finishing, immediately launch into the next one. The more I read, the more enlightened I think I’ll become about story and character and plot. No matter that I don’t stop to fully digest the work, because surely I’ll absorb it at some subconscious level and the secrets will somehow find their way out of the deep autonomic fibers of my brain onto the screen in front of me, my fingers tapping the words on the keyboard practically of their own accord as I write my own stories.

Even if it were to happen that way, which it doesn’t for me, that’s still just the first draft. Then there’s revision. That’s where the things we are taught in workshop or in the pages of a craft book or in the feedback from our writing group come into play. This is also the time to review the stories we’ve read that resonate with us, to take a closer look at the finished, polished work and analyze it, name its parts, and articulate their functions. Reviewing stories I admire is where I start when I prepare a craft lecture or presentation.

I recently taught a class on story openings and used examples from favorite stories for the class to examine and identify the elements of fiction in the first paragraph. One of the examples I used was from “This is So Not Me” by Natalie Serber from her collection Shout Her Lovely Name. The opening line is rich with character and story. The voice is captivating. We are immediately in the story with this acerbic, anxious, vulnerable woman.

I was climbing the stairs to Walter’s brownstone, Ezekiel swaddled up tight like they showed me three times before I left the maternity ward. You know, how they’re supposed to feel better if their arms and legs are wadded in close like the Baby Jesus lying in the manger. Seems it would make me want to scream, but whatever. So I’m holding him next to my chest when all of the sudden I got this urge, what if I just dropped him right over the side of the bannister. Kerplunk, like a chestnut. I could almost see my arms reaching over the edge and letting go and that baby blue blanket careening to the ground and me just turning on my heel. I don’t have to tell you that it scared the crap out of me and I pressed my ass against the brick wall the rest of the way up.

For a class I taught on “7 Ways to Increase Tension in Your Story,” I assigned a story called “The Great Beyond” by Alma Garcia, first published in Narrative in 2005 and now part of her novel-in-progress, which I predict to be a hit. I wanted to assign a story that wasn’t so obviously fraught with tension, but where tension was certainly at work in the story, inherent in the rising action. We also looked at how Garcia created tension through dialogue not only by open confrontation but by what’s left unsaid. We saw how she used flashback and exposition to vary pacing to heighten tension and how her deft sentences, vivid and precise words, and her juxtaposition of opposing ideas (past/present, borders/the great beyond) further deepened that tension.

Another recent lecture I gave was on humor, which is for me such an essential part of any story. It dissolves or amplifies tension. It deepens character. It pulls us further into the story. In the class I taught, we studied a scene from Antonya Nelson’s story “Three Wishes” in her most recent collection Funny Once. I apologized to the class because after our reading and discussion of the scene they would never have the experience of happening upon it for the first time within the story, which for me was such a delectable moment. Humor and pathos are so beautifully woven, flaws and needs so nuanced, images so richly drawn in this scene. Nelson’s characters feel real and multi-dimensional. They may be nothing like us. Yet they are us. We are them. That’s the power of humor.

One of the pleasures of presenting a lecture or craft class is the opportunity to share stories that have moved or touched me in some way. How gratifying it is to say, here, read this. Laugh, cry. See you. See me.

Posted in On Writing

Ghosts, Pie, and Magic (and Writing)

It might be an addiction—the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. For six of the last seven years I’ve gone.

Before I started the run at the PT conference, I’d been to others and enjoyed them all—Squaw Valley, Napa Valley, VONA, Bread Loaf. Two summers ago I attended the Taos Summer Writers Conference. I loved that one, too.

But there’s magic at Fort Worden where the PT conference is held. And ghosts. And pie.

Here are the magic parts:

  • The scenery—There are water and woods, views of Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier, the stately madrone trees, and the deer, ubiquitous as squirrels, mostly ambling the grounds but once in a while performing exquisite little jetés
  • The weather—It was a beach week this year, but even the clouds and wind in a more typical Northwest summer can dazzle
  • The community of writers—I’m not the only one who has made a habit of this conference. Many participants and some faculty make return visits. While the familiar faces make me feel at home, the newcomers keep it new.

This year the magic was boosted beyond normal by Luis Urrea. You could tell who his workshop students were by the look of awe they wore in the dining hall at lunchtime. The rest of us had a chance to be awed during his reading one evening and later in the week at his craft lecture. The man enchants, and I’m proud to be called his homie, sharing as we do a connection to National City, CA.

The fiction workshop I was in had its own brand of magic. Pam Houston—great storyteller, astute reader of student work, compassionate and generous conveyor of feedback—led our workshop of all women. That’s right, no men in the class. In my experience at writing conferences, women far outnumber the men, just as they outnumber them as readers and buyers of books. Funny, though (by which I mean not funny at all), that men far outnumber women in being published, reviewed, and lauded.

Not that it solves the problem, but good thing there’s pie—gorgeous, delicious fruit pies. Pie and Whiskey Night is made possible by the pie-making skills of poet/pie maven Kate Lebo and fiction faculty and incoming conference artistic director Sam Ligon. This year I took a beautiful slice of blueberry pie and sat next to Pam Houston (because, you know, Pam Houston!!!). When I saw her leave part of her pie crust on her plate, I blurted, “You gonna eat that?”

“Go for it,” she said.

So I did. I ate Pam Houston’s pie crust.

I felt no shame. That pie will make you say and do anything. Or blame it on the ghosts. The buzz is that they wander the dorms, the monastic, functional cells once occupied by soldiers when the fort was an active military base and later by wayward youths when it became a detention facility for juveniles. Ghosts are also said to occupy the schoolhouse where the writing workshops are held and even drift with the morning fog along the beaches and bluffs, and in the treetops in the woods. They’re integral to the spirit of the place, so to speak.

So next year sign up for some ghosts and pie and magic at the Port Townsend Writers Conference.

Posted in Events, On Writing, People


I couldn’t write. My desk was a mess. Books and papers and really all kinds of crap were smeared across, under, and around it. It’s taking a month of weekends to pull everything from the shelves, off and underneath the desk, and out of sloppily stacked boxes to sort and file, recycle and toss. And preserve.

Amid the forgotten photos, baggies of baby teeth, and political pins (U.S. Out of El Salvador, I Am Salman Rushdie, Mondale/Ferrarro) I came across, there were also these bits of writing—little charms infused with pangs of love and guilt and loss. And life.

My younger daughter Ana was forming letters at three and writing notes to me at four. Sometimes they were informative:

Dear Mom

Im running away undr the tabl

Sometimes they were chastising:

To Mom From Ana
Im sore that you got mad but you ned to kin trol your tempur
Love Ana

Out of the mouths, or rather, crayons of babes.


My mother who isn’t much for letter-writing sent me a note dated April 16, 1993, a week after my father’s funeral.

I am sending the certificate of Death to you. Hope everything is well with you. Rose and I have been eating out because John has been working on the kitchen.

Death amid the mundane.


When my older daughter Natalie was in college, she would sometimes send me her drafts of papers for feedback. Here’s the last line of a book review she wrote for her history class on a book titled Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith C. Brown.

In Brown’s recreation of the life of Benedetta Carlini, she reminds readers that despite the passing of several centuries, issues such as overcoming constraints set by society, filling voids of love, and dealing with identity still face people today.

Life lessons.

Posted in Events, People

Blame Me, Seattle

When we’re wishing hard for something, we feel that the universe can grant only so many wishes, that one must prioritize, perhaps weigh the greater good against the personal gain. During Super Bowl Week earlier this year my family, like so many others in Seattle, was caught up in Seahawks Fever. Who doesn’t like a winner? Who doesn’t want to be a winner?

It was that same week that I learned I was a semi-finalist for the Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman. Winning meant having your book-length manuscript chosen by contest judge Randall Kenan and published by Carolina Wren Press. I was thrilled, hopeful, and wishing hard to be the eventual winner.

My husband teasingly asked, “Would you rather that the Seahawks win the Super Bowl or that you win this publication prize?” Not exactly a Sophie’s Choice dilemma, but still a situation to test one’s grace and goodwill. Did I wish for the outcome that would please thousands or the one that would please primarily me, me, and me?

We play such games often, as if life is a game of binaries, only one of which is possible. Would you rather be Shakira or Joyce Carol Oates? Would you rather be rich or smart? Would you rather be legless or armless?

My answer to such questions is often both or neither, depending on the stakes. Why should I have to choose? But maybe that’s not how the universe works. We only have so much luck, so much karma. So even if you wish for more than your share of goodies, you’re bound to be denied something. Maybe everything.

So when the Seahawks lost the Super Bowl, what else could I believe but that the book publication prize had to happen for me? On March 13, I found out I had made it to the finalist round and that the winner would be announced sometime in April. Even though April was a busy month for me, every day I asked myself, Is this the day? And every day, it wasn’t.

At the end of that month, I read the feature in the latest Poets and Writers on writing contests, hoping to find a sign, a tiny hidden hint of how I might fare in the contest in which I was currently a finalist. Judges described their strategy for narrowing down manuscripts to arrive at a winner. They also offered advice to writers on entering contests.

Entering contests is not always just about winning. (Yes, thank you, I knew that. More often, they’re about losing.)

Literary careers are built in steps. (Yes, again, thank you. I started writing just over twenty years ago. I turn 62 next month. I don’t have a lot of steps left.)

Then I read the “Winners on Winning” story, in which winners of contests provide their perspective on winning and losing.

…I always go on the assumption that I won’t win…
To which I say, but you must harbor at least a bit of hope that you will win. Or why bother to submit.

You swing and sometimes you miss but, hopefully, you hit every once in a while.
I like baseball (or softball) metaphors, but this one doesn’t quite fit. Back in the day, I swung a bat with a pretty good eye and connected plenty of times. My acceptance/rejection percentage doesn’t come anywhere close to my batting average.

Then there was this advice:

There’s a lot of excellent work out there, and publishers aren’t able to bring it all into the world.Therefore, it helps to be persistent. Lucky, too.

This was something I understood well. My work was competing with a lot of great stuff, which was why even in my persistence in submitting to contests and querying small presses and once in a while an agent, I wanted that other element on my side—luck.

So when the Seahawks lost due to a poor call or the bad luck of an interception, I wanted to believe that I was destined to win the contest. Wasn’t that how it was supposed to work? Except the waiting for the contest decision was agonizing and seemingly interminable. And I began to think that it would be another close-but-no-cigar kind of outcome. I had been a finalist for the Grace Paley, Flannery O’Connor, and Brighthorse prizes. This time I more than ever needed and craved the cigar.

When the call finally came on May 6 from Robin Muira at Carolina Wren Press, I was not just flooded with joy, I was swamped with relief. The search was over. The rejections were history. The universe had delivered! So, go ahead, Seattle, blame me for the Super Bowl loss. But you’re all invited to my book launch in 2016.

Posted in Events, On Writing

Uncommon Women

At Hedgebrook’s recent annual fundraiser called Equivox—equal voice—to support women’s stories as vehicles for change, I was again much moved by the sheer energy, goodwill, and, yes, love that this very special writing retreat inspires among alumnae and community supporters. This year I got to meet Hollis Wong-Wear, alumna of the Hedgebrook Songwriter’s Retreat, and hear her perform her poetry and songs. She’s dynamite on stage and off. Deborah Harkness, alumna as well as a master class teacher, recounted with warmth and humor how her stay at Hedgebrook helped her break out a period of self-doubt and low productivity. It was a story that many of us lived ourselves.

Meeting uncommon women (a favorite Wendy Wasserstein phrase) is part of the Hedgebrook experience. In fact, meeting other writers is one of the best aspects of a residency anywhere. Here are a few whose work you might want to get your eyes or hands on.

I met Angie Chuang at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts the spring of 2011. The residency hosts about twenty-five artists—writers, visual artists, and composers—at a time. Angie was a magnet with her energy and her smile. Adventurous, curious, and an engaging conversationalist, everyone seemed to gravitate toward her. Her book The Four Words for Home, based on her travels to Afghanistan, won the Willow Books prize and was published last year. She’s on the journalism faculty of the American University School of Communication. Her academic work focuses on American Otherness, constructions of immigrant and minority identity in the news media. Angie is also a Hedgebrook alumna.

I met visual artist Tamara Cedre at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in 2009. There were eight writers, eight visual artists, and eight composers, each group working with a master artist. On one of the first nights, we all gathered to introduce ourselves and our work. Once I saw Tammy’s photography I was an immediate fan. The colors and composition starkly evoke something deeply human even when people are absent from the photo. Tammy is funny, smart, and compassionate, attributes she’s applied to Critical Eyes: Navigating the Politics of Image, a blogging collective that reflects on media culture. I was honored to have been invited to submit one of the first articles.

I met well-traveled and well-read Stacy Perman during a return stay at Hedgebrook in 2005. Though I haven’t seen her since, I recall quite vividly the breadth of her knowledge on a multitude of topics. She’s the author of three books, each of which has earned acclaim. One is about the ultra-secret high-tech intelligence unit of the Israeli military and the groundbreaking information technologies that resulted from it. Her second book told the story of In-N-Out Burgers, the renegade burger chain and its unique fervent following. Her most recent concerns the passion, money, and obsession around a famous watch, considered the Mona Lisa of timepieces that contained twenty-four “complications,” including a celestial chart over Manhattan. How’s that for range?

Go. Read and view the work of these talented women.

Posted in Hedgebrook, On Writing, People, Places

A few things I’ve learned about writing by teaching it

I’ve only taught a handful of classes about writing. I’m not a teacher by profession or proclivity. I’ll soon begin my twenty-eighth year as a project manager for a local government agency, full time except for a few months after my second daughter was born. So whenever I’ve accepted an invitation or responded to an opportunity to teach a class or give a lecture, it has meant a detour from the hour or two each evening I try to spend working on writing fiction in order to do my homework on a craft topic. My own education as a writer has been a series of extension classes, workshops, and conferences, as well as the writing group I’ve had the privilege to belong to for the last ten years. For more about my writing group, read Jennifer D. Munro’s recent blog post.

I remember in my early years of trying to write fiction, I attended workshops and conferences intent on finding the big secret to writing a story, convinced there was one and that everyone knew it but me. That it was there encrypted in the prepared lecture as well as the stray or impromptu remark. All I had to do was listen hard enough. And take lots of notes.

A few years ago, I gave a craft lecture on plot. It consisted of the accumulated notes I had scribbled whenever the word plot was uttered in any workshop I had ever taken. I stitched together a narrative of sorts about my search for how to write plot. It’s a popular topic and what I learned is I’m not the only one who has spent time searching for the secret, which turns out to be not one thing, but many. While there are plenty of things to keep in mind when writing a story, here are a couple from a class I took from Tom Jenks that I like to keep in mind:

  • Take the reader across a story in steps that are highly concentrated, focused and short, and in discrete movements of conflict-action-resolution.
  • Consider each character as the main character in his or her own story. Each character has its own arc.

A few months ago, I taught a class on increasing tension in your story. I assigned “The Great Beyond” by Alma Garcia. (Yes, she’s in my writing group and I get to benefit from her brilliance.) It’s not a suspenseful story. The tension is subtle, but definitely implicit in the vivid language, the characters bumping up against each other, the expertly woven symbolism, and the pulsating sense of place. The students were absolutely enamored of the story. What I learned is this:

  • If you assign a delicious piece of writing, your students will thank you effusively and you will feel so smart for having done so.

Earlier this month, I did a ten-minute lesson on titles at the Seattle 7 Writers annual community writing event Write Here Write Now. In my ten minutes I listed some examples of titles to illustrate what each captures in terms of delivering a particular aspect of the story, such as character, place, or theme. But the main message was another gem I took from one of Tim Jenks’s classes:

  • Determine the salient element of the story, that is, the most noticeable or striking element, and use it to name the story. A title works best if it comes out of the dramatic and lyric movement of the story.

I’ll be guest faculty this summer at the Whidbey Island MFA residency, offering craft lectures on story openings and the role of humor in dissolving or deepening tension in a story. I’ve written the class descriptions. Now I’m looking forward to seeing what I learn from preparing for and delivering these classes.

Posted in On Writing, People