THE WRITER'S SPOTLIGHTThe Online and On-Campus Writing Programs offer more than one hundred courses each year, including the two-year Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing. This space will aim the spotlight on the talented alumni and faculty of our courses, featuring news of recent successes, opportunities for networking and publishing, short personal essays, and interviews relevant to all aspects of the writing life. If you have a piece of news or know of an opportunity you'd like to share with our community, please email: continuingstudies.stanford.edu.
July 2021This month, we spotlight Olympus, Texas, the debut novel by Stacey Swann, who taught creative writing online through Stanford Continuing Studies for many years. Stacey Swann was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford and is a contributing editor of American Short Fiction. A native Texan, her home state forms the setting for her novel, which is both raucous and moving, and a book that everyone should hurry out and read. Please enjoy our interview below, which includes several real gems of wisdom that every aspiring novelist can use. (I know I will!)
Malena Watrous, Online Creative Writing Lead Instructor and Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator
Malena Watrous: Stacey, I absolutely love how you wove together this rich tapestry of mythology together with a contemporary family drama. Please share a bit about the origins of the project. Which came first—the Greek influences or the Texan clan? Or did you have the idea to write a contemporary pantheon and then come up with characters and stories to match?
Stacey Swann: The novel actually began with the mythology. It occurred to me that Greek and Roman mythology—with its larger-than-life characters and events—made a good fit with Texas mythology, which also views itself as feeling larger than life. Everything's bigger in Texas, as they say! The early drafting and planning of the novel felt like a really fun game as I tried to take the gods from myth and create counterparts that were fully mortal, modern-day Texans.
MW: In that same vein, how did the process work? Did having these myths as inspirations made it easier for you to figure out the plot of the story you wanted to tell? Where did you feel like you had to be true to the source material and where did you let yourself deviate?
SS: In the first couple of months of my drafting, I was sticking really close to actual myths that I knew. I had a whole chapter that was an update of the myth about Hades kidnapping Persephone, and I was building up a longer plot revolving around the labors of Hercules. It was tough work, though, making them feel believable in their updated settings. I workshopped the opening chapter during my first workshop as a Stegner Fellow, and I got the invaluable advice from the class to not feel bound to the actual myths and to feel free to build my own plot. From that point on, I focused much more on the character archetypes themselves rather than the actual myths—though there are still a few myth scenes that made it through to the final version!
MW: What is your writing process like these days, now that you have finished and published your first novel? Is there anything you learned as a result of writing it that you would either replicate or avoid the next time around?
SS: It wound up taking me twelve years to write this novel, with a lot of gaps when I put the book away to work on other projects, and then another three years to find an agent, sell the book, and do two more rounds of revision with my editor at Doubleday. So for the past year I took a break from fiction and mostly worked on essays. However, I have finally started work on a new novel with an idea I've been kicking around for a few years. I feel really lucky, as teaching for so many years with Stanford's Online Creative Writing Program, and especially the courses for the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing, taught me so much about more effective ways to write a first draft and new ways to approach novel structure. I'm excited to try out these tools on the next book.
The biggest thing that I learned is that there is a special kind of magic created when you work on a book every single day, even if it is just fifteen minutes of re-reading. Stopping and starting creates an extra set of hurdles, as too long of a break means having to fight your way back into the world of the book. I'd have to write a lot of words before the scenes felt fresh and alive again. I've set a goal for myself for the next novel to write a very rough, very messy first draft in six months.
MW: What advice do you have for your former students and anyone else working on their first novel?
SS: I think the main reason I never gave up on the book is that there came a point, probably five years in, that I made a promise to myself that I would finish it. Even if I didn't think it would sell, even if I just put it in a drawer when I was done, I had to finish the draft and revise it to the best of my abilities. I told myself that if I gave up and started a new idea, I'd just hit this same tough part all over again and be tempted to start another new project. I had to prove to myself that I could actually finish a book. When my inner critic would inevitably despair over the quality of the book, that promise to myself ensured I kept writing anyway.
Writing Poetry in a Time of Crisis
Esther Lin, Continuing Studies Instructor, Former Stegner Fellow, Stanford
The newly turned year of 2021 seemed to promise change: the release of the vaccine that would save lives, a new administration in the White House, and all our dark jokes about the heartbreak of 2020 would be outdated. Yet January proved still darker with the riot on the US Capitol. And vaccine distribution remained slow.
During this time, eighteen strangers, from many time zones, gathered.
It was a modest gathering. A class. Online. Together, they studied poetry. They read Gwendolyn Brooks and Kimiko Hahn. As the season began to turn, they read Brian Turner and Layli Long Soldier. They analyzed these poets’ work with care; they began to break apart, imitate, filch what these poets did. They wrote their own poems.
Studying poetry during the uncertain winter of 2021 was a strange act. Poetry is “useless.” It can’t protect your body, it can’t pay your rent. Our guides, Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux in The Poet’s Companion, teach: “Writing a poem in such times may feel a little like fiddling while Rome burns. Yet we’re poets.”
As the instructor of the class of poets, I was honored by their willingness to grow and deviate from who they were before, what they’d written before, and to approach this art with hunger, brilliance, and above all, hope. Their hope for a world where intimacy, beauty, and memory matter. Nine of these extraordinary writers—Gail Nezvigin, Vini Rupchandani, Arthur Manzi, Amira Salaam Amro, Christina Petrandis Krasilinec, Stacey Lee Patton, Susan Olson, Bonnie Nortz, Nkaujntsuab Txakeeyang—share their poems and their critical writing with you.
Writing Poetry in a Time of Crisis (pdf) >>
This month, we are delighted to spotlight former Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing student Sally Cole-Misch, whose novel, The Best Part of Us, was published by SheWrites Press in September 2020 and was a finalist for the 2020 Sarton Award for Contemporary Fiction. Cole-Misch has advocated for the natural world throughout her career as a journalist, environmental educator, public affairs director for a US-Canada boundary waters commission, and consultant for effective environmental communications. About her novel, Kirkus Reviews said: “The novel…honors the natural world with dazzling imagery....A dramatic, rewarding story about woman reconnecting with family, nature, and herself." She generously wrote a piece for us this month, describing her evolution from journalist and environmentalist to novelist, how the certificate program helped her to realize this dream, and how she used this story to explore and deepen her ideas about the natural world.
Malena Watrous, Online Creative Writing Lead Instructor and Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator
Does a story come from us or through us? If you’d asked me that question ten years ago, I would have answered the former. As a journalist and environmental communicator, I followed a traditional writing process: research; hypothesize; outline‘ identify key points and quotes as linchpins to drive the article, report, or video forward; and summarize with a strong, clear conclusion. Always from me, using knowledge and experience gained over time.
By 2012, after decades of reporting on the state of our natural environment (which includes us, by the way), my optimism had reached a low confidence level that my writing could help humans use our collective intelligence and our will to live to change how we live. In the early days of environmental reporting, we hammered home all the horrible ways humans are destroying our air, water, and soil. By the early 2000s, we realized that this approach wasn’t creating enough personal or collective change and switched our focus to helping people connect with nature first, because what they value, they will act to protect.
The benefits of spending time in nature are well documented in hundreds of studies: nature feeds the soul, reduces stress, makes us more aware of the world around us as well as within, and gives us a sense of generosity and commitment to something larger than ourselves. Research also shows that once we are connected with nature, scary news about climate change or other environmental issues is more likely to drive change in our daily actions.
While those of us who are making those essential connections with nature on vacations are seeking refuge in natural spaces, family cottages, and national parks, the average American spends only 7 percent of their daily life outdoors. Even if we only need two hours outside per week to reap all of nature’s benefits and enhance our caring for it, we’re falling far short.
I needed a new approach to my writing in order to reinvigorate my optimism and my messaging. Could I try fiction—write a novel that reflects how we are part of and interconnected with the natural world, without preaching? Where nature is as much of a character as the people are, and which is written well enough that someone besides my family or friends want to read it?
All credit goes to the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing’s gifted instructors and to the generous, amazing writers who also completed the program in the 2013-2016 cohort for providing the instruction and encouragement I needed to give it a try. With the first draft of a manuscript in hand at graduation, I spent any free hours over the next three years writing eleven more drafts and listening closely to beta readers to get to a final version. The Best Part of Us is the result.
Here’s the best part of this story: a writing exercise in my first OWC course changed my entire perspective toward how and why to write the novel and toward my environmental work, too. After completing detailed biographical sketches of primary characters (in my case five humans and nature itself), we were assigned to freewrite a letter from each of them to ourselves. The first line was to read, “Dear Sally, There’s something you don’t know about me...”
I still remember the odd sensation of sitting in my local library, closing my eyes, and letting the letters spill onto my computer screen for eleven hours without a clue about what most of the sentences meant. Feeling the characters come alive through me, however, was magical and exciting. Like I was meeting new friends who would become lifelong companions and had important thoughts to share. The joy of writing I’d once known but forgotten was coming back.
As I wrote and rewrote, every time I focused on listening rather than controlling the narrative, the characters and the story deepened. I played with what scenes to add and where, like puzzle pieces, and let the characters color them in. By the tenth draft I could see how their various storylines wove together into a united story. That’s when I let myself read their letters again, and I was amazed how the story had become true to each character’s original message.
The novel writing certificate program and writing The Best Part of Us reminded me why I love to write, and renewed my faith in the value of what I’m writing. By freewriting the essential messages and emotions behind the latest environmental report or article, I can get to the heart of those issues literally and figuratively—which creates greater response from readers as well. And I’m meeting a new set of characters, who are introducing themselves with greater impatience in every freewrite. What fun.
This month, we would like to use the Writer’s Spotlight page to announce an upcoming information session about the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing. The application window for Fall 2021 runs from April 12 through June 4. This information session is intended to help prospective students determine if this program would be a good fit to serve their particular needs as aspiring novelists.
The program consists of a five-course series and an elective and was designed to guide dedicated fiction writers from the idea for a novel (or early draft stage) to a full manuscript. At the end of the sixth course, students have the option of signing up for a one-on-one tutorial, launching their novel’s revision under the direction of an accomplished fiction writer and instructor.
Join us for our online information session on Wednesday, April 21 at 12:00 pm (PT) to hear from program administrators as well as recent alumna Tracey Lange, who used her two years in the program to work on her novel, We Are The Brennans, which will be published in August of 2021.
While attendees will get a chance to ask questions of their own, program co-founder and coordinator Malena Watrous answers some common questions below. Malena is a novelist and also teaches in the certificate program.
Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing FAQ
Q: How is the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing similar to or different from getting an MFA?
A: Most MFA programs mix cohorts between long and short fiction writers, while our program is exclusively focused on novel writing. An MFA (or sometimes a PhD) can be a requirement when someone is applying to teach at the university level. This certificate won’t fill that role. Most students in MFA programs are expected to take fairly substantial course loads which include studying literature and theory. We only ask students to take one course per quarter, which is a writing class, but instructors bring literature and theory into these writing courses.
Q: How flexible is the schedule/are there set times when I have to be online?
A: Because our program is (and always has been) entirely online, our students come from all over the country and even world. Most of our instruction is asynchronous, meaning there is never a time when students must be online. can log into Canvas and do their work when they have time. We do have a weekly hour-long Zoom session, but attendance is optional and it is always recorded for later viewing.
Q: Who is the right applicant for the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing?
A: Someone who is quite serious about their fiction writing, who has been working at it for a while in a demonstrable fashion, ideally by taking at least one prior writing workshop. We have novelists writing in various genres: contemporary fiction, mysteries and thrillers, sci-fi, historical fiction, even some novels-in-stories, and YA. Regardless of genre, we look for applicants who care about language and wish to create resonant books. We don’t accept writers working on middle grade fiction (intended for ages 8-12) or below, because when you’re writing for readers that young, the concerns and constraints of the genre are significantly different from adult fiction, which is the focus of our program and instruction. This is not a program for memoirists, although autobiographical fiction writers are welcome to apply.
Q: How selective is the program?
A: We can accept 60 students, which recently has been about 40-45% of total applicants. The selectivity of our program means that the cohort is comprised of passionate writers who have already learned the basics of fiction writing and are ready to learn how to make their novels work—everything from balancing subplots to weaving in a character’s misbelief, to figuring out how to sow the seeds of the ending in the beginning of a book. The selectivity also means that students can enjoy collaborating with similarly dedicated and informed classmates. Many of our students end up forming writing groups that they sustain for years after finishing the program.
Q: Do I already need to be working on a novel when I apply?
A: You don’t necessarily need to be at work on your novel, although almost all students apply with at least a pretty fleshed out idea for one, if not also a sample chapter or two. We love it if the description of the project in the Personal Statement matches the writing sample, although we know that’s not always possible. However, some students have been admitted who may have only written short stories in the past and are applying with the desire to start their first novel. Some students also enter the program with a rough draft already finished, knowing that they want to use their time to refine and revise it, which is also fine. Our goal is to offer you the tools, instruction and community to write the best possible novel that you can in two years.
Q: Do your students go on to publish their novels?
A: Many of our students have begun publishing the books they’ve written while in this program, and this monthly column often features their success stories. Nothing thrills us more than when we learn of a student getting a publication, winning an award or finding other forms of recognition for the novels they produced under our guidance. Our students have also sometimes gone on to attend such prestigious MFA programs as the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
This month, we are delighted to spotlight our wonderful writing instructor Joshua Mohr, whose second memoir, Model Citizen, will be available March 9. Joshua Mohr is the author of a previous memoir, Sirens, as well as five novels: Damascus, which The New York Times called "Beat-poet cool"; Some Things that Meant the World to Me, one of O Magazine’s Top 10 Reads of 2009 and a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller; Termite Parade, a New York Times Editors’ Choice; Fight Song; and All This Life, which received the Northern California Book Award. He is the founder of Decant Editorial. Josh recently shared his thoughts on his latest book, the memoir versus the novel as forms, and an exciting project in the works.
Malena Watrous, Online Creative Writing Lead Instructor and Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator
Malena Watrous: I am so excited to read Model Citizen, which sounds incredible, but also so sorry to hear of your strokes and how they have required medications that potentially affected your ongoing sobriety. Can you talk a little about the time period covered in the memoir and how you got through it? Did you realize as it was ongoing that you wanted to write a book about the experience, or was it only after coming through to the other side?
Joshua Mohr: I wrote this memoir in two discrete chunks. Parts 1 and 2 of the book, I wrote while waiting for my heart surgery. My third stroke was on January 1, 2015, and my heart surgery was scheduled for March 11 of that year. So I had two months sitting on my hands, worrying. My daughter was only eighteen months old at the time, and if I died on the operating table, she'd have no idea about our relationship, who her old man was, et cetera. So I wrote the book as a love letter to her. Then about two years after my surgery, I had another stroke. That one was so demoralizing because they had said—and still do—that the surgery worked. Which means they don't know how to stop these strokes. They said I wouldn't live out of my forties. That sort of "unknowingness," if that's even the right word, is so terrifying. I wanted to write into that complexity, that horror—and that became parts 3 and 4 of the memoir.
MW: You have published novels and a memoir before this one. Tell us a little about your different experiences with fiction versus nonfiction. Do you have a preference at this point? What does each genre give to you (or ask from you)? When do you know that you want to use an experience more or less as it happened (in nonfiction) versus transforming it via fiction?
JM: I try to always have a fiction and a nonfiction project going at the same time. That way, I can never use writer's block as an excuse. I hit the wall in this one, so I flop over to the narrative. I derive a lot of daily joy, scribbling, regardless of genre. That's the thing for me: Life makes the most sense when I scribble every day. I try to honor my art, look it in the eyes, and whisper that it's important by carving out the time. While I wrote Model Citizen, I was also deep into a historical fiction novel about Gold Rush San Francisco. That will come about in about two years with Farrar Straus and Giroux as publisher. I've already sold the television rights and the filmmaking team Radio Silence is attached to bring it to life. If you didn't see their debut feature last year, Ready or Not, it's good, pulpy fun.
MW: Having built a writing career with longevity and range, and as a popular writing instructor in the Continuing Studies creative writing program, what is the main piece of advice do you have for our students as they try to create sustainable and productive writing careers of their own?
JM: Honor your nuanced imagination. Write the stories that only you can cook up. I'm teaching a dialogue course right now, and in our office hour recently, I told the students, "Write what you know, but never what you understand." That's very important, too. You can't start from a place of clarity; it has to be curiosity, writing into the moral mud of being alive. We need open hearts and open ears to approach truth as storytellers.
MW: Do you write every day, always? How about when you've just finished a book?
JM: I write every day, yes. Even if it's just to line-edit a paragraph, on a day with sprawling dad/husband/job duties. I find at least ten minutes a day. None of us is so important we can't find ten minutes to honor our craft. To me, it's muscle memory. I've been writing every day for over twenty years. It's almost involuntary at this point, but that only came because I put the hours in. Butt in the chair. I'll take work ethic over talent any day of the week, though I'm glad they aren't mutually exclusive.
MW: Did the process of writing this memoir surprise you? What kinds of discoveries did you make while writing it, versus while living through the experiences it chronicles?
JM: This is gonna sound uber-nerdy, but writing memoir is the most exciting, the most surprising to structure. Reality, obviously, is formless, and memoirists need to find shape, aboutness, an arc from that formless reality we call a life. I'd argue that most memoirs fail due to inferior architectures, not content. So how we curate our system of life experiences is as vitally important as the material itself. Model Citizen is very ambitious structurally, and I learned a ton writing this book. That's honestly what it's all about for me. I'm not trying to get "good" at writing; I want to remain an apprentice forever, constantly challenging myself on a project-by-project basis. We all know that our characters need things at stake for a book to work, but I'd argue the artist needs something at stake, too. For me, that's the willingness to try new things, to risk abject and public failure, to evolve via experimentation. And if we stay apprentices, we'll always slake to learn more.
This month it is my pleasure to spotlight numerous recent accomplishments from Joanne Godley. Joanne is a physician as well as a “triple-threat” author: a poet, fiction writer, and creative nonfiction writer. Over the years, she has taken many courses in the Stanford Continuing Studies Online Creative Writing Program, and was an early participant in the two-year Certificate Program in Novel Writing. There she wrote a lyrical and haunting historical novel about a young teacher at a boarding school for Native American children who have been forcibly removed from their homes and placed into a system that aims to strip them of their culture. Joanne’s prose is exquisitely poetic, and I was thrilled to learn of the publication of her first poetry chapbook, Picking Scabs from the Body History. Her most recent creative nonfiction piece is forthcoming from The Massachusetts Review.
I asked Joanne to write about her trajectory as a writer in three different genres. She produced this lyric essay addressing why the lyric essay—often oversimply defined as a hybrid of poetry and essay—is itself her favorite form.
Malena Watrous, Online Creative Writing Lead Instructor and Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator
What to a Poet Is the Lyric Essay?
As a participant at the Kenyon Review Nonfiction Writers Workshop two summers ago, I snuck into a luncheon for poets. After introducing myself, I murmured, “I’m gender-fluid.” It took me a minute—taking in the silence and the perplexed looks around the room—to realize and correct my error: “I am genre-fluid.” A mid-career physician, I have advantaged myself of Stanford’s potpourri of online writing courses: how to write everything nonfiction, from memoir to magazine articles. In order to improve my fiction writing, I matriculated in the Certificate Program in Novel Writing, which culminated in a historical novel yet to be published. I’ve continued to take poetry courses. But what I love best is writing lyric essays.
If the traditional essay involves coloring within the lines, the lyric essay is a Jackson Pollock painting. In dog terms, the lyric essay is a delightful mutt.
During the 1800s, Dr. J. Marion Sims, a gynecologic surgeon once lauded as the “Father of Gynecology,” kept a small cache of enslaved women on whom he obsessively operated, hoping to perfect a surgical technique he had developed. I had read his autobiography and longed to write an essay from the viewpoint of Anarcha, one of the women on whom he experimented. How could I portray her story? What was a creative nonfiction writer to do without this woman’s written statement?
I began with the information I had amassed:
1. I started with a paragraph of backstory about Anarcha derived from Sims’s autobiography. Her master had brought her to Dr. Sims because of complications incurred during childbirth.
2. I researched the reactions of women from African countries who had suffered similar postpartum (after childbirth) complications. How had they understood and processed their ailments?
3. I researched primary source data on the technical details of the operation, which included Dr. Sims’s footnotes.
Then I began writing:
4. I wrote a poem about a woman in pain.
5. I imagined what Anarcha might say if I were able to interview her.
6. I inserted survey statistics on the perceptions medical students have about Black people and their alleged resilience to pain.
7. I included a flash memoir piece about pain.
8. I used lyrics from a song about pain. I incorporated all of the above bits into a lyric essay. It is entitled “The Herstory of Pain” and is forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review.
In the January/February 2021 edition of Poets and Writers magazine, the feature article describes the notebooks of eight writers. Rachel Eliza Griffiths, a poet, compiles, as part of her creative process for a forthcoming book, what she calls a wall triptych of associative paraphernalia: a blue dress, photos, a hat, drawings, erasure poems, magazine clippings. It looks like a collage wall. I, too, gravitate toward things that are loosely, but intimately, associated.
One of my favorite visual art forms is the collage. I also enjoy (and have done) mosaic art work. I’ve collected interesting and colorful china that I’ve broken and used to mosaic a fireplace, steps, a bathroom sink, and mirror frames. Grout is what holds a mosaic together. The piece is connected by the colors of the individual pieces, or by the color of the grout. Sometimes, the sheer randomness of the individual pieces conveys connectivity.
As a teenager, I wrote poetry in response to events impacting my world. When the Detroit Tigers won the World Series in 1968, I lamented baseball celebrations in the wake of the 1967 Detroit uprising in a poem published by one of our local newspapers. I’ve continued centering my poetry on social justice issues, alternate histories of oppressed people, and poetry of witness. My chapbook, Picking Scabs from the Body History, was published last July, just after the murder of George Floyd. This excerpted poem was nominated for a Pushcart Prize:
Anatomy of a Scar
I will not touch this wound will not I’ve taped my hands at night worn mittens and gloves
created internal distractions to stay as far the hell away from myself so the hurts could crust
and scab over I am a Black mother who told both children at their becoming ages what it
meant to be a Black in America; as they left the Cute age, transitioned to the Intimidating age, &
arrived at the Dangerous age-America's categories for Black youth—I read the little black book
to them at night How to Be Black and Stay Alive—my girl included—the book told you to look a
grownup in the eye; to neither smirk nor shirk nor grin when spoken to; stressed the importance
of enunciating and articulating the King’s English every day; to respect their elders; to neither
lie nor cheat; to say 'yes sir' to an officer; and understand that milk is a food not a beverage
The lyric essay suits me because it invites poetic language and defies linear formatting. It welcomes associative thinking and it invites playfulness. It embraces rhythm and metaphor and ushers in loads of white space. It marries poetry and prose. And, it speaks to my soul.
Inspiration for Writing in the New Year
January is the traditional time to set resolutions. I’m not a huge fan of the typically austere New Year’s resolution (go to the gym more, lose twenty pounds, etc.). January and February are cold and dark and hard enough, even in a non-pandemic year, without also having to worry about giving up sugar or abandoning other pleasures. But I do like setting specific goals for what I’d like to accomplish in my writing.
Last January, I bought a black leather-bound Moleskine notebook, the thickest one available. I wanted to reduce some of the anxiety that had built up around writing, so on the first page I set my intentions on that for the coming year. I decided to start each day with three free-associative “morning pages” (a strategy made famous by Julia Cameron), and then end each day with three things I noticed and was grateful for. A year later, I can read back over those intentions to see where I lived up to them and where I deviated. I didn’t write morning pages every single day, but I often did. The notebook is filled, and I’m buying another for 2021.
In the coming year, I’d like to write a twenty-page chapter of my new novel each month, for the next six months or until I finish a draft. Half the magic of this kind of intention setting is just thinking about what I want to do with my writing, being as specific as I can. Then I can figure out how best to support myself in meeting it. For instance, I’ve formed a writing trio with two friends who are at similar stages in their own novels. Knowing that I have to hand in ten pages to them twice a month keeps me moving forward. I have our meetings and their pages to look forward to. And as the year goes on, I can check back in with the goals that I committed to paper, adjusting them if need be.
As writers, we share a lot of commonalities in terms of what inspires us, and what gets us to sit down and keep producing work. That said, different writers have also discovered different tricks that work for them in particular. For example, I like to write a little star on my calendar next to every day of the week that I write. I sometimes also make a note of the number of words that I wrote, especially if I’m trying to meet a specific goal like finishing a chapter or working to a certain target in a manuscript by a given date. Seeing what I did acknowledges my accomplishment and inspires me to do it again.
I’m always fascinated to hear writers talk about their unique processes, creative methods, and habits. As we enter 2021, I thought you might benefit from hearing from some of our writing instructors about theirs. So I asked each of them this question: “What is the best piece of advice that you have to offer your fellow writers?” I hope that their responses inspire you as you enter this new year and think about what you want to accomplish on the page in 2021.
Happy new year, and happy writing!
Malena Watrous, Online Creative Writing Lead Instructor and Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator
“Sometimes we can be hard on ourselves as writers when we are not writing. We have an idea in our heads of how many hours we should be working or how many pages we should be producing. But many writers write while holding down jobs or juggling family commitments and, inevitably, there will be times you just can't get to the computer. During those times, remember that the writing is still happening in some part of your subconscious, that your brain is still working out scenes or characters or a sticky point in the plot, and that when you do finally get back to the page—which you will, I promise—the time away will prove to have been invaluable, providing you with the necessary perspective you needed. So take the pressure off yourself and let lulls happen as a natural part of the writing process.”
“If I’m feeling blocked or unmotivated, I make a deal with myself that I’m just going to open up a document and look at it for five minutes. I don’t have to do anything to it, just look at it. Turns out I can never resist messing with something, and then before I know it it’s been an hour.”
“Find the connection between your current thoughts or emotions and your book. Consider what you're struggling with, or what the world is, right now. Does this relate in any way to the struggles of your characters? Fiction can create a bridge, imbuing your old project with new urgency.”
“When you find that you're withholding crucial information from the reader, consider the pros and cons of not putting this information on the page. Sometimes there are clear benefits, for example an intentional, specific mystery. Other times, your story would improve by a more open telling. Think of the reader as a friend you can trust with your character's deepest secrets. The reader is excellent at keeping secrets.”
—Lauren Kate Morphew
“Try editing out of sequence. It forces you to ponder each scene's/chapter's contribution to the overall cohesive whole to edit without thinking about causality, arc, adjacent material, etc. You analyze that one scene's/chapter's role and then you can finesse from there. For example, tomorrow morning, edit chapter 17, then chapter 4, then work on chapter 31. Either those chapters are accomplishing their intentions or they aren't. I like remix strategies like this, as they are a concrete tool to tell if something works in its current iteration.”
“Remember that the author of a completed novel is a composite of the writer over many, many days of writing. So for any given writing session, just focus on doing your part, knowing you’re part of a much greater collective ‘you’ that’s smart enough to finish this book.”
“Writing is always more fluid—or more possible—for me if I'm also meditating. When I'm feeling dragged down by a project, approaching it as though it's a game I'm playing can make the work feel lighter and freer. I give myself a lot of leeway to follow my curiosity. If I get a wild idea or impulse, I spend an hour or two following it, whether I expect it to end up in the piece or not. Some interesting and unexpected openings can appear that way and renew my sense of surprise and excitement in the project.” —Rachel Smith
“When it’s really hard to write, we can say to ourselves, ‘It doesn’t matter if I make anything good today. But I will be happier for the rest of the day if I do this than if I don’t.’ We can edit the work from the day before, write a bad paragraph or page, make notes. It can help to set a timer for twenty minutes or even ten. Usually if we get started, we can keep going.”
Most people will agree that 2020 has been enormously trying as we endure the tremendous upheaval, of the election (and its aftermath) and the ever-rising COVID-19 case count. At Stanford Continuing Studies, one thing that gives us heart is that our creative writing classes have continued to fill with students who seem more eager and grateful than ever to have this outlet—a place to focus away from the news, an opportunity to grow when their circumstances might be circumscribed by the pandemic. For the December Writer’s Spotlight, I asked our long-time Continuing Studies instructor Caroline Goodwin (who teaches our course "Writing Through Struggle," among others) for a piece about how to write in troubled times. She came up with this essay, the title of which is also her number-one piece of advice for writers.
Online Creative Writing Lead Instructor and Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator
by Caroline Goodwin
“The mystery that is writing. The way a story begins…a line of a song that won’t leave your head, an article in the newspaper that strikes a chord, a fragment of conversation…, a repeating dream.” This is part of what keeps me showing up at the page, through thick and thin, as it does the acclaimed children’s author Jane Yolen. I can still see the cover of her 1987 picture book Owl Moon, with its blue-black snowscape and bundled-up human figures, perhaps because it resonates with my Alaska childhood and perhaps because it touches my grief about losing my father in 2018. And I still often turn to Yolen’s 2003 book Take Joy: A Book for Writers, which includes a chapter called “The Mystery That Is Writing.” I think that maybe if it weren’t for the joy that’s part of the process, it might all be too difficult, our current human situation too much to bear.
Joy. The prospect of possessing what one desires. Bliss. A state of happiness or felicity. Isn’t this too much to expect? What about “opening a vein” when we sit down at the page, not to mention the pandemic, police brutality, climate disruption, etc.? (I will not continue…) How can we justify the time and attention it takes to attend to our creative work when the world is collapsing? I am asking these questions here because they are questions I ask myself every day, and have been asking myself for decades. And they have the same answers today as they’ve always had: Yes, and. Take joy. Make a little progress anyway. Exercise your voice and claim your space.
I’ll admit that at the start of COVID, I appreciated the shutdown. No commute, no carpool, no rushing out the door first thing. An hour at my desk in the morning? Heaven! Obsessed with the COVID numbers, I invented a form for a series of poems I now call Matanuska, after the great river of south-central Alaska. Each poem would take as its title a moment’s worldwide COVID death count, the common and scientific names of a wild plant, and the exact date and time of the death count. Each poem would repeat, three times, a line of text from Janice J. Schofield’s Discovering Wild Plants: Alaska, Western Canada, The Northwest. This is a book I often turn to for poem ideas (I love the sounds of plant names), but what I somehow hadn’t realized was that the book actually does not belong to me. It belongs to my late husband Nick, who died in a mountain biking accident in 2016, and it’s full of notes and highlights from his days as an undergraduate student in environmental science. So my writing time turned into grieving time, and then into joy time as I discovered the hearts of the poems taking shape. For me, when I find these weird connections, it’s a gift, a gift that circumstance cannot take away, as long as I do my part by showing up and allowing the work to unfold.
I encourage my students to find ways to prioritize their writing time, however it works for them, and no matter what. I find that, for myself, when I can get that time at my desk in the morning, even fifteen minutes to read, I’m just better at the rest of my life. I’m a better activist and mom and teacher, catching and appreciating those moments of joy. Writing is messy, life is messy and fractured, and it’s part of our job as writers to capture and celebrate that fact.
This month we shine The Writer’s Spotlight on a former Continuing Studies creative writing student, Samantha Rajaram, whose novel The Company Daughters was published in October. Congratulations, Samantha! Asked to share “one piece of advice” for her fellow Continuing Studies students aspiring to complete and finish novels of their own, Samantha wrote about the value of a research trip she took to Amsterdam, where she imagined herself into her protagonist’s shoes and walked in her footsteps.
Online Creative Writing Lead Instructor and Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator
In July 2015 I took a trip to Amsterdam to research for my debut historical novel The Company Daughters.
My novel is about two young women who fall in love while on a ten-month journey to Batavia (now Jakarta) as part of an actual 17th-century Dutch anti-miscegenation policy. It was an admittedly ambitious project for a newbie writer without an MFA. I knew next to nothing about the Dutch as an Indian American, and this was the first book I’d written. Research would be critical to creating a believable world for my characters.
I’d saved up for my trip to Amsterdam, and looked for a comfortable Airbnb not too far from Dam Centre. I’d been there once before with my parents as a teenager, and seen the tourist sites—Anne Frank’s house,
the canals. But this was a different sort of trip. I was alone, and I was here to work.
I recall arriving, and the adrenaline rush of not knowing how to get anywhere. I took a cab driven by an old man with a very long beard who barely spoke to me. I tried not to read an inauspicious outcome into this first experience in Amsterdam, but I was all nerves. I’d been married for a long time and was used to traveling with my spouse. Now I was divorced and traveling alone, and with an admittedly odd purpose. I was looking for my protagonist, Jana Beil.
On those first days I subsisted on stroopwafels, those buttery, caramel Dutch sandwich cookies, and Milka chocolate bars. The occasional apple. I missed my kids. I was lonely. Was I crazy to be here? I knew no one. I was overwhelmed by the city—its tall, fit inhabitants racing by in the bicycle lanes as I trudged some 18,000 steps a day through the city, the beauty of the canals, my uncanny tendency to get lost within minutes. I was afraid to talk to people or order food, afraid of being distracted from my task of understanding this world.
Traveling for the sake of my writing seemed a ridiculous idea. When friends asked why Amsterdam, I was honest. I am writing a book, I said. But even as I explained I found myself doubting my intentions. Was I really going to do this? Why not just find a nice stretch of beach in Hawaii and take a break from motherhood and work? I was certainly exhausted. And a poolside cocktail sounded lovely.
But my protagonist, Jana, insisted. As I explored Amsterdam, I would get inklings of my main character. This is a street she would walk down. This is a house she would like. Here is the door she knocked on, looking for work, and her favorite little bridge. Amsterdam reverberates with its distant history—its narrow brick homes and labyrinthine canals, and the glowing still-life paintings in the magnificent Rijksmuseum, breathed life into the vague story coalescing in my mind.
Jana talked to me throughout my journey. She told me to watch the trees in Erasmuspark as the wind blew through them. As I studied the furniture collection at the Rijksmuseum, she pointed out which chairs her employer kept in the dining room. And when I felt lonely, I felt her most of all—her loneliness, her desire to understand. Which mirrored my own.
And five years later, my debut novel has arrived. Despite all my doubts, Jana pushed me forward, along with the guidance and encouragement of so many friends and mentors, beginning with Stanford’s own Sara Houghteling.
So here is my advice: do that preposterous thing. Listen to your characters. Live their lives. While researching a different novel, I traveled to Marseille and lay down on the floor of the St. Charles railway station so I could know how the floor of the platform felt, smelled, and looked. Crazy? Absolutely. Necessary? For me, yes. As before, I surrendered to my characters’ stories and voices, and allowed myself to believe in their urgency, and in their right to exist in the world.
And now they do.
This month, we are delighted to celebrate the recent publication of our instructor Caroline Leavitt’s twelfth novel, With or Without You. Caroline’s novels include Pictures of You (a New York Times bestseller, now in a tenth-anniversary edition), Is This Tomorrow, and Cruel Beautiful World. A book critic for People and AARP, she is a former New York Foundation of the Arts Fellow in Fiction and was a finalist in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in Pilot and Feature films. Her work has appeared in New York, “Modern Love” in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Lit Hub, The Manifest-Station, Salon, and elsewhere. For many years, Caroline has taught a popular online writing course through Stanford Continuing Studies, “Writing the Novel From Back to Front.” Visit her at www.carolineleavitt.com.
Caroline generously gave us a short essay with a salient piece of advice for her fellow writers and writing students encapsulated in the title.
Malena Watrous, Online Creative Writing Lead Instructor and Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator
Write About What Haunts You
by Caroline Leavitt
The first thing I always tell writers in my Stanford Continuing Studies creative writing courses is to write about some question that is haunting you, some issue you don’t have an answer to. That delving deep is really what will make your novel universal, rather than trying to write to a market that is often cookie cutter. So what was haunting me into writing With or Without You?
Coma. My own coma.
I was in a three-week medical coma after the birth of my son and given memory blockers so I wouldn’t remember the procedures or the pain. When I awakened, my mind was blank—disturbingly blank, actually—but my body remembered. Anything would trigger me. A woman wearing a striped shirt might set off a panic attack because the stripes were the same as the stripes on my hospital curtain. A smell of lotion would make me break into a cold sweat. And I didn’t know why.
So I wrote about it, in my first coma novel, Coming Back to Me (I know, I know! There are two!), where a woman just like me went through coma after the birth of her child. But it didn’t really make me feel better, and I didn’t feel unhaunted. Years passed, and finally, five years ago, I went to a therapist because I was still having trouble sleeping. “You wrote the wrong book,” she told me. She advised me to write another coma novel, but this time to make the person as totally different from me as I could, so this way I could really live another life, and process my trauma through another person’s experience.
I created Stella. Unlike me, she remembered everything about her coma. Unlike me, she emerged with a different personality and a startling new talent. (Fun fact: in my research on comas, I found that the brain does rewrite and refire, and people often do emerge speaking fluent Mandarin or being a violin virtuoso.) As I began to live through Stella, I began to be less haunted, less triggered, and actually more filled with a sense of wonder about what the brain could do and about life itself.
To my surprise, this very personal book I wrote touched a universal nerve. I was on National Public Radio talking about transcendence through my coma. Features were written about me in The Washington Post and The Daily Beast. The book was recommended by the Good Morning America Book Club and received positive reviews from Bustle, People, AARP, POPSUGAR, the Minneapolis StarTribune, Lit Hub, and the San Francisco Chronicle. I was even asked to write a column for Psychology Today!
So writers, remember, when you are writing: Be haunted. Go deep. Get personal. It’s a gift both to yourself and to your readers.
This month, we are delighted to spotlight the publication of our beloved instructor Ron Nyren's debut novel The Book of Lost Light, which received Black Lawrence Press's 2019 Big Moose Prize and is forthcoming in November 2020.
His fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, North American Review, Glimmer Train, Mississippi Review, Fourteen Hills, Able Muse, The Dalhousie Review, and 100 Word Story, and his stories have been shortlisted for the O. Henry Awards and the Pushcart Prize. Ron is the co-author, with his spouse and writing partner Sarah Stone (another beloved instructor of ours), of Deepening Fiction: A Practical Guide for Intermediate and Advanced Writers, and he was an editor of Furious Fictions: The Magazine of Short-Short Stories.
A former Stegner Fellow, Ron has been an instructor in fiction writing for Stanford Continuing Studies since 2011 and has taught in the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing since 2017. I recently talked with Ron about his forthcoming novel, his creative writing process, and his number-one piece of advice for aspiring writers.
Malena Watrous, Online Writing Lead Instructor, Stanford Continuing Studies
Malena Watrous: How did you first come up with the idea behind The Book of Lost Light?
Ron Nyren: The original idea—what if someone grew up being photographed every day of their life?—came to me in the early 1990s, perhaps inspired by seeing Eadweard Muybridge’s* photos of boxers in motion. I first wrote it as a short short story set in contemporary times, but at the time I didn’t know the purpose of the project or have a sense of why it mattered.
Years later, when I was thinking of turning a different short story into a novel—a story with a photographer as a minor character—I remembered that short short, and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me to set the novel in the early days of photography. I then thought of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the novel grew from there to become the story of a boy raised by his obsessive photographer father and his impulsive young cousin. After the quake, they take refuge with a group of displaced artists and actors. As our own times darkened, the book became more about resilience and what it takes to rebuild our lives after disasters.
MW: Many of my favorite novels took a long time to come into existence, and I know that this novel fits that description. Please share a bit about the process of writing it and the different iterations it may have taken in revision.
RN: First I spent a year writing notes on what might happen in the novel. In January 2001, having settled on very little, I decided to just start writing the novel itself and see what happened. I rewrote the first eighty pages too many times, telling myself I was getting in touch with the voice of my narrator, Joseph, the boy who grows up photographed.
Many characters and plotlines appeared, only to be pruned away and replaced. Because of that, it’s a palimpsest of a novel now, with many of the characters informed by previous iterations of themselves in other guises. I’m a little bemused that it took me so long—the current version of the novel is more or less one I finished in 2017—but the characters remained alive for me that whole time, no matter how baffled I was along the way, so I kept going.
MW: Having finished and now published your novel, is there anything you would do differently if you could go back in time?
RN: Could I take the final manuscript back in time with me and just hand it to my younger self?
MW: I think many published authors feel that way! Let’s talk a bit about your writing in general. What is your creative writing life like? How do you compose or divide up your day? What strategies or tools have proven effective in staying artistically vibrant while also managing other professional angles?
RN: My day job is writing about architecture and urban design for design firms and related publications. I try to set aside the first half of the morning for fiction writing, then turn to professional writing for the rest of the day. Having a dailyish routine helps, because it takes the pressure off any given day—the blank page is less intimidating when I know that if today’s output isn’t useful, tomorrow’s might be.
My goal is to write fiction most days of most weeks of most months. Since the pandemic struck, I haven’t had the bandwidth—the brainwidth?—to spend as much time on fiction writing as I used to. But even during those periods when I’m derailed by work or apocalypses, I look for moments each day to daydream about the possibilities for in-progress stories—say, while washing the dishes—so when I do sit down to write, I have more to work with.
MW: As co-author with your wife, Sarah Stone, of Deepening Fiction, a textbook about the writing process, what is your number-one piece of advice for aspiring authors? Or more than one if you can't pick a favorite.
RN: Read lots—contemporary and ancient, short and long, within your genre and also outside, from your own country and from all over the world. If you’re writing a novel, pick three “mentor novels” from among your favorites to reread so you can think about how they begin and end, what territories they take on, what makes them urgent and memorable, what qualifies as “enough” to happen or change or be revealed in a given chapter. Allow your book to unfold itself to you as you write it: the process may go quickly or slowly, but there’s a great satisfaction in making late discoveries, adding new layers, and figuring out what your subconscious was up to all along.
* Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) was known for his pioneering photography studying animals and humans in motion; these include his famous snapshot of a galloping horse commissioned by Leland Stanford and the boxers mentioned above by Ron Nyren.
Sindya Bhanoo has been a reporter for The New York Times, where she was the longtime “Observatory” columnist, and The Washington Post, where she is a frequent contributor. She received a Master of Journalism degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers.
Her reporting has received support and recognition from numerous organizations, including the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the New York Press Club, the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting, the Asian American Journalists Association, Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT.
Her fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, Granta, and The Masters Review, and her work has received support from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.
I spoke with Sindya recently about her experiences as a student in the Stanford Continuing Studies Program, her dual experience and interests in journalism and fiction writing, and her recent writing.
Stanford Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator and author of Thieves I've Known
Tom Kealey: Sindya, as a journalist for The Washington Post, you've been covering a variety of impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, including features on parents, foster families, expat retirees, and independent bookstores. What has this been like?
Sindya Bhanoo: The whole experience has been surreal.
On March 3—Super Tuesday—an editor from The Washington Post called and asked me to go to polling locations in Austin, Texas, where I live, to find out whether voters and poll volunteers had concerns about the coronavirus.
Not a single person did.
Three days later, South by Southwest (Austin’s annual media and music conference and festival) was cancelled because of fears of the virus spreading and I, like many other reporters, found myself pulled headfirst into covering a global pandemic.
What has been most striking to me throughout this time is how much access to resources makes a difference in how each of us experiences this moment. The virus does not discriminate—we are all fair game—but how comfortably we can get through this time varies. What we can provide for our children during this time varies. Some of us can stay home, some of us cannot afford to. That may seem like an obvious observation, but as a reporter, I see it in a painfully clear way.
TK: We’re interested to hear about your pivot toward fiction writing. You graduated from the Michener Center for Writers and have had a number of short stories published. Could you take us through the early development of your story “Malliga Homes,” published in Granta and recipient of the Disquiet Prize for Fiction 2020, and talk about how the creation of a fictional work is significantly different or similar from creating a journalistic story?
SB: Fiction and reporting are both forms of storytelling.
In my reporting work, I start with an event, a fact, or a collection of facts and work from there to find the right people—the right characters—who can help me tell the story.
With fiction, it is different. Almost always, I start with an image. In my story “Malliga Homes,” it was an image of a husband putting his hand over his wife’s hand when he wanted her to calm down. The image was a memory. The wife was a widow and she was recalling the times when he did this.
The story is set in a retirement community in southern India where many of the residents are upper-middle-class Indians whose children have moved away and settled abroad. I’d heard about these retirement communities from my mother, and I was able to do some research to build the world and make it feel authentic. But the kernel that I started with was that image of the lonely widow.
TK: A number of Stanford Continuing Studies students are considering the idea of an MFA in Creative Writing. Could you talk about your experience at the Michener Center for Writers and how that helped you develop as a fiction writer and creative artist?
SB: My experience at the Michener Center was immersive, productive, and immensely fulfilling. I loved it.
The program offers three years of full funding with no teaching duties. I have two young children—our son was just one year old when I started the program—so having no teaching obligations was an incredible gift.
It was a chance to read, write, talk about books and think about what my interests and obsessions as a writer of fiction are. I have a bachelor’s degree in computer science and then I became a journalist so I had little exposure to literary fiction until I arrived at the Michener Center.
That said, not everyone can take the time off to pursue an MFA, even a fully funded one. And it is not necessary. A similar experience can be self-crafted by the savvy writer. Courses like the ones Continuing Studies offers are of such high quality, with wonderful instructors.
TK: Before the Michener Center, you were a student in Stanford Continuing Studies writing workshops. Can you talk about that experience and how that shaped your work and career?
SB: If it were not for Stanford Continuing Studies, I would not be writing fiction today. It is as simple as that.
When my daughter was a baby, I cut back on my reporting work to spend time with her. Just as she was about to turn two, I began to get cabin fever.
I lived in California at the time, and a friend casually mentioned that Stanford had great writing courses through its Continuing Studies Program. I looked it up immediately and signed up for an evening course with Sara Houghteling.
That class, and Sara, changed my life. It was my first workshop experience, which was terrifying, and my first attempt at writing a short story. It was exhilarating to have my story workshopped. I had readers! Somehow it made my work come to life, to have people discussing these characters that previously existed only in my head.
A few weeks later, I ran into Sara at the park near my home. Our kids are the same age. There, as the kids played in the sandbox, she told me that I had to keep writing.
I took that to heart, but there was something about hearing this from her at the park that made me believe it was possible. In class, I saw her as this glamorous novelist, something that felt entirely out of my reach. At the park, she was just another person, a mom like me. That was the first time I realized that writers are actual people—people who buy groceries and take out the trash and, well, take their kids to Rinconada Park to play in the sandbox.
I kept writing. I took a course with you. I loved it. I used the stories I wrote in those Continuing Studies courses to apply to MFA programs. One of those stories is in my forthcoming collection.
And I am still in touch with Sara. She has been a mentor and a friend as I’ve worked to find my way in the literary world. I trust her completely and am so grateful to have her support.
TK: What have you been working on most recently, and what interests you most about that work-in-progress?
SB: These days my focus has been on reporting. I’m editing a special project for Mission Local, funded by the Pulitzer Center, that follows the lives of Latinx immigrants and undocumented Americans living in San Francisco’s Mission District as they navigate the pandemic.
With the little time that is left over, I’m writing more short stories and working on a novel. I am especially interested in the movement of people between India and the United States, and the gains and losses that come with it.
To learn more about Sindya Bhanoo and her work, please visit:
Eavan Boland: Groundbreaking Poet, Teacher, and Mentor
“Poetry begins where language starts: in the shadows and accidents of one person’s life.”
—A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet, Eavan Boland
Eavan Boland—scholar, professor, and one of the world’s most renowned and influential poets—died following a stroke in her Dublin home on April 27, 2020. Boland was 75.
There is no way to overstate Eavan Boland’s impact on Stanford University, the Creative Writing Program, Stanford Continuing Studies, and thousands of students, Wallace Stegner Fellows, and lecturers over the years. She was a fierce and devoted advocate of so many aspiring and emerging writers.
Boland was the director of Stanford’s Creative Writing Program for twenty-one years. Of the many enduring legacies from her life and work, one is particular to Stanford: her insistence that any undergraduate or adult student who wanted to take a creative writing course should be able to do so. She was one of the main drivers in expanding creative writing offerings at the undergraduate and Continuing Studies levels.
Eavan Boland was born in Dublin in 1944 to Frederick Boland, the first Irish Ambassador to the United Kingdom and the United Nations, and Frances Kelly, a talented and well-known artist and painter. She spent her childhood in Dublin, London, and New York before attending Trinity College Dublin for her undergraduate degree. In 1969 she married Kevin Casey, who survives her, as do her two daughters, Eavan and Sarah, and her four grandchildren: Ella, Jack, Julia, and Cian.
Boland’s poetry explores many themes, including the Irish national identity and the role of women in Irish history. Her first book of poetry, New Territory, was published in 1967, and she followed with over twenty volumes of poetry and prose including the celebrated The Lost Land, Domestic Violence, and A Woman Without a Country.
“I used to work out of notebooks, and I learned when I had young children that you can always do something,” she told Stanford Magazine in 2002. “If you can’t do a poem, you can do a line. And if you can’t do a line, you can do an image—and that pathway that leads you along, in fragments, becomes astonishingly valuable.”
Other works by Eavan Boland include Against Love Poetry, An Origin Like Water, In a Time of Violence, and Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time. Her work has received numerous accolades including a PEN Award, the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, and the Corrington Award for Literary Excellence. She also received many honorary degrees, including from University College Dublin, Colby College, and Trinity. In 2016 she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Boland wrote often about the creative process of a writer: “I loved the illusion, the conviction, the desire—whatever you want to call it—that the words were agents rather than extensions of reality. That they made my life happen, rather than just recording it happening.”
And from The Lost Land:
“This is what language is:
a habitual grief. A turn of speech
for the everyday and ordinary abrasion
of losses such as this:
just enough to be a scar
And heals just enough to be a nation.”
Boland believed strongly that everyone should have access to creative writing and worked in partnership with Stanford Continuing Studies to make that a reality for writers in the Bay Area and beyond. A great friend to Continuing Studies throughout her life, Boland co-taught “Short Masterpieces of Irish Literature” in Winter 2020 with Stanford colleagues and friends Charles Junkerman, Dean of Continuing Studies, Emeritus; William Chace, Honorary Professor of English, Emeritus; and Rush Rehm, Professor of Theater and Performance Studies and of Classics. Boland also taught “A Fiery Shorthand: Twentieth-Century Irish Literature” in 1996. She was also a dynamic participant in many Continuing Studies campus programs over the years, including Stanford Saturday University and “Adrienne Rich: A Celebration of Her Poems” in May 2019.
Boland also mentored and supported a variety of Stegner Fellows who have gone on to teach in Stanford Continuing Studies, including current instructors Caroline Goodwin, John Evans, Matthew Siegel, Angela Pneuman, Scott Hutchins, and Austin Smith.
Eavan Boland will be greatly missed by writers, readers, and admirers throughout the university and the world. Her latest collection of poetry, The Historians, will be published in October 2020 by W.W. Norton.
For more information about Eavan Boland, we recommend:
• “Eavan Boland, Outstanding Irish Poet and Academic”
• “11 Eavan Boland Poems to Remember Her By”
• “Eavan Boland: A Transatlantic Tribute” (YouTube video)
Stanford Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator and author of Thieves I’ve Known. Tom worked closely with Eavan Boland in the Stanford Creative Writing Program for sixteen years.
From Writer to Author: Navigating the Twisty Path to Publication
Malena Watrous, Online Lead Writing Instructor, Stanford Continuing Studies
The difference between a writer and an author is that the latter has published a book. But while this may be true, most people who want to make that transition and get a book published have a lot of questions about how exactly the process works.
In my experience as lead instructor for the Stanford Continuing Studies Online Writing program, I have had countless students come to me with the same questions:
How do you get an agent? What information should go in a query? Do I need an MFA? Are summer conferences or writing residencies useful? If I do get offered a book deal, what’s the process of working with an editor like? Should you ever pay an agent? If I want to self-publish, how do I get my book into stores or reviewed in papers? What is the role of a book publicist? Is social media important if I want to be an author?
But while I hear these questions over and over, most of them don’t have one simple answer. Books are written and brought into the world in a variety of different ways, with a variety of different results. But that isn’t to say that you can’t get some guidance as you make important choices on the path to becoming a published author, which is why I designed the online course, "From Writer to Author: Navigating the Twisty Path to Publication."
Every week during the course, you will hear from an author and a member of their “team,” someone who helped their book to come out in its final shape and find readers. You will have the opportunity to read each author’s book ahead of time and then come up with questions for that writer and their “teammate” in advance of a scheduled Zoom meeting that both will attend. You will hear the two of them in conversation with each other, discussing the process of working together as well as answering your questions.
Last year, when I taught this course for the first time, students reported that they learned a tremendous amount about the publishing process, not in some dry or abstract way but by participating in these conversations and hearing many great stories from our visitors, who offered a behind-the-scenes look at how their excellent new books came to be. The authors are also more than willing to discuss craft, not just business. You’ll be able to ask questions about why they made specific choices regarding point of view, structure, plot moves, and anything else that stands out. You can find out where the ideas for their books came from, and what may have changed along the way as they revised. This is a great course for avid readers, anyone who loves good books, and aspiring authors.
The visiting writers this summer will include Elizabeth Wetmore (Valentine), Stephanie Soileau (Last One Out Shut Off the Lights), Emily Carpenter (The Weight of Lies), Adrienne Brodeur (Wild Game), and Lysley Tenorio (The Son of Good Fortune). For more information or to enroll, please visit "From Writer to Author: Navigating the Twisty Path to Publication" (starts June 22). Note: Course link removed as the course is now closed/full; please check back when the course is next offered.
This month we are thrilled to spotlight the publication of Diane Byington’s second novel, If She Had Stayed. She wrote and published her first novel, Who She Is, shortly after finishing the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing (abbreviated as OWC) in 2012. In addition to writing novels, Diane (pictured left) has been a college professor, psychotherapist, and executive coach, and she also has raised goats for fiber and enjoys spinning and weaving. We talked with Diane about where the idea for this latest novel came from, what she got from the certificate program, and advice she might have for aspiring novelists.
Malena Watrous Online Writing Lead Instructor, Stanford Continuing Studies
Malena Watrous: Diane, congratulations on the publication of your fun and imaginative second novel! Can you talk a little bit about where the idea for this one came from?
Diane Byington: Thanks so much for your kind words. It’s great fun to have two novels out. The idea for If She Had Stayed came while I was shopping for a publisher for my first novel, Who She Is. I wasn’t sure I’d ever find a publisher for it, so I decided to write something that would be fun and outrageous. I got the idea when I was noodling over the thought of what my life would have been like if I’d done something different when I was younger. Of course, one can’t actually do that—there are no second chances in life. But then I thought, “What if we could?” and the plot sort of rolled out in my mind right then. I wrote the first draft during a NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), when I participated with a group of other OWC graduates. It was so much fun to just write and write without editing. I finished the first draft six weeks after I started, but then there were numerous drafts after that one. The overall story didn’t change, though.
MW: You wrote your first novel while you were an OWC student. How did the process of writing your second novel while outside of the program compare?
DB: The first one was so much fun because I had faculty and other students available to work with me on it. For the second one, I was on my own. I did have a critique group and beta readers, but it wasn’t the same. It was much more fun to write with a group, with a tutor at the end who helped me polish the book. But that’s reality. One has to be able to work alone at some time.
MW: What did you learn from the process of writing the first one that served you in the second one? How did your writing group and early readers impact this book as you wrote it?
DB: When I wrote the second book, I knew I could finish it. I didn’t have to wonder if I had a book in me, because I knew I did. That is a huge advantage, and I credit the OWC program for helping me develop that confidence. I can’t say the actual writing was any easier (sorry, folks), but I knew I could do it. I am a member of a great critique group and I have several beta readers who are willing to read my books. I recommend that your students form a group to help each other after the program ends, because by that time, they will know each other really well and have an automatic critique group.
MW: Your first novel was strictly realism, whereas this one involved time travel. How was the process of writing speculative fiction different for you? Talk about the challenges and pleasures of this imaginative leap.
DB: Oh, gosh, I don’t think I would undertake another time travel novel anytime soon. It’s much, much harder than writing realism. There are so many things to keep track of, such as what would happen if the older and younger people meet in the past, and how would the younger version of the protagonist speak differently from her older self. I could go on and on. I also brought in Nikola Tesla as the character who discovered time travel, and I had to read deeply about his life in order to try to copy his style of writing. It was a huge undertaking, but I was cut loose from needing to have everything be based on reality. That part was loads of fun.
MW: Any tips for our aspiring novelists?
DB: I learned more during my time in OWC than I have at any other time in my life. I ended up cutting back on my day job and dropping out of most of my social life so I could focus on this wonderful program, because I knew that I probably would never again have the luxury of spending two years writing. For anyone enrolled, I hope you make the most of it. It’s not easy to write an entire novel, and you should celebrate when you finish the program with that novel in hand. I wish you all the best as you work toward getting that novel published. Don’t give up!
This month, I want to spotlight the accomplishments of two Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing students who have had recent news worth celebrating concerning their writing.
Amie Wolf’s story “Large Knuckles” was recently chosen as the Narrative magazine “story of the week.” Amie (pictured left) is a second-year student in the certificate program, working on her first novel. Click here to read Amie’s story (sign in free but required).
I also want to celebrate the accomplishment of Trudie Scott, who completed the program several years ago. Last year, Trudie placed second in the Memoir category of the annual Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference contest. This past January, Trudie participated in our Creative Writing Retreat at Djerassi, where she worked on a series of nature essays. With Trudie’s permission, we are sharing one of those essays here.
Online Writing Lead Instructor, Stanford Continuing Studies
by Trudie Scott
I suspect I was a wild child. After reading Enid Blyton's books, I renamed myself George after the lead character in her “Famous Five” series. I insisted in fourth grade that everyone call me by that name. As third child, I was pretty much left on my own, and at an early age I took to wandering the hills around my house. Later, the ridges would lead me to what we in our neighborhood called the mountain, Mount Tamalpais. I was small even at the age of eight with short brown hair, and a signature Giants’ baseball hat turned backward on my head. I eschewed dresses and, to my mother’s horror, wore nothing but jeans.
Being alone most of the time, I started talking to trees, first the oaks and later the redwoods in a fairy ring that grew in our yard. I still remember telling my parents that the trees answered, each in a different voice. When they chose to speak, the oaks did so with a sort of deep rumbling, the redwoods with something that sounded more like a hum. I remember my parents laughingly asking me, "What did they say?" I found that a silly question. "I don't know, as I can't understand them, but I will.” To this day, I still talk with the trees, and I haven't yet figured out what they say to me, but I know they listen, and somehow, when I touch the bark of a tree, I hear something akin to sound.
As an adult, I fell for an enormous oak tree that grew near the wetlands on a trail I often walked. I know it to be an ancient tree as I have measured its circumference. I named it Grandfather Tree. Almost every day, I would visit, putting my hand on its rough bark, noticing its leaves and twisted branches, and observing what had recently slept beneath it. Until the morning of April 6, 2016, when I couldn't get up off the bedroom floor. Crawling on my belly under coyote bushes, I had followed a trail to find my foxes’ den. I did discover their den in a pine tree, of all places, but the bad news was that during my search I was bitten by a tick that carried Lyme disease.
It would be months before I would see my tree again. At first I lost the use of my leg due to treatment for the Lyme disease. After the rehab hospital, and physical therapy, I began to walk awkwardly, but walk. One day I left the wheelchair and walker behind and started toward my beloved tree. It took weeks for me to be able to walk the mile there, but it was my goal. Finally, I succeeded. I remember putting my forehead against his ancient bark, my arms around the trunk as far as they could go, and thanking my beloved friend for his inspiration and kindness. I felt an answer deep from his core, a rich bass resonating beneath my hands.
I haven't found a sit-spot yet here in Point Reyes. With the Point Reyes National Seashore outside my door, there are many places to explore. Even though I lived here for sixteen years, it has been twenty-six years since I last returned. I know what I am looking for: a quiet place off a game trail where there is water. One night, I determined that I would go to Muddy Hollow. I didn't know it well but thought I remembered that it had a small pond.
It was still dark when I left the house my husband and I had just moved into, the original schoolhouse for Point Reyes. I heard a gurgle from the fishpond that we covered each night with plywood to protect them from the raccoons. In the moonlight, I could see my fish Goldie’s slim form slipping by through a small slot in the boards. It was dark and just 46 degrees. I had what I call my Arctic Parka with me, a relic from a 6'8 boyfriend some forty years ago. It falls all the way down to my knees. To my mind, it is the best thing I got out of the relationship. Equipped with this enormous jacket, knit hat, scarf, binoculars, and journal, I was ready for anything, or so I thought.
I drove slowly up Limantour Road as it was dark, and I was already scanning ahead for critters. I was surprised to startle two or three robins who were sitting on the pavement. I slowed down, and each one flew, but I wondered what they were doing there. Eating roadkill pinecones, or scooping up insects? I don't know.
I turned off on the Muddy Hollow gravel road and was pleased to see that I was the only one there. I felt a prickle of excitement about what I might find. Even if there was nothing, there is something about being alone at daybreak that makes my heart sing.
I parked the car and started down the trail, crossing a stream on a narrow log, looking for a place that would suit. I heard an owl call in the distance and listened carefully for the answering call of its mate. Not hearing one, I worried briefly about the missing partner and then let it go. I stopped in astonishment at the appearance in the growing light of what I immediately called the ghost tree. It was a huge dead tree with gargantuan white branches hanging down like so many witches' fingers. It must have been seventy feet tall. This sight alone would have made the excursion worthwhile.
I couldn't seem to find what I felt was the right place as there was much crimson poison oak littering the steep sides of the trail. I briefly considered an alder tree above the trail seeing myself sitting in the crock of the alder’s branch, but then rejected that even though it might be amusing to see what arrived on the trail under me. I turned around and teetered back over the log across the creek—my balance has never been the same since the tick disease. Reaching the parking lot, I decided to take the Estero Trail, which headed out to Limantour Beach. Something about it had tempted me from the moment I left the car this morning. Perhaps it was a sign.
I started walking at a slow, steady pace. I scanned my surroundings and remembered that as a tracker, I should be aware of landscape from three points of view: from what I could see around me, from what a mouse would see, and lastly from an aerial view. I laughed out loud when I realized how steep the hills were on both sides of this small valley. It was a hollow or a glen. Hence the name. I always ignorantly thought of hollows as being only in Appalachia, but of course, that is not true. Down on my knees, I peered at the ground, noticing some scat from a skunk. I hoped to run across it. I love skunks. I find them cute. They have a definitive perky gait. Turning my head, I saw other game trails leading off in several directions, which had now become apparent from this perspective.
Suddenly ahead of me, I saw a flash of the rear of some animal, probably a mule deer. I looked through my field glasses—a tule elk. I knew there was a herd down here but had never seen one. I stopped and waited, tamping down my energy so as not to send up an alarm. As I continued to watch, a huge bull came up on the road with two cows behind him. He turned and looked at me. He had massive antlers. I knew that the rut was over, or I would have backed away and headed back to the car, as these animals can be very dangerous. Frankly, I was a little uncertain about what to do. He took some stiff-legged steps toward me, and I backed up again and stood still. I have watched enough deer behavior to know that his posture was asserting his dominance and alerting his family to possible danger.
I was about twelve yards away from them, but I found myself looking for somewhere to go if he charged. I thought about hiding behind one of the many alder trees. Would that work? I didn't know.
At this point, we were at a stand-off. The bull took several steps toward me, and I backed up again. I held my ground. He turned briefly and looked to his left and then moved away from me a few steps down the road. Unfazed, his cows were grazing the roadside. I didn't move. He turned around and looked at me again. Now what? I thought. Suddenly, two calves appeared from the underbrush, where I suspect they had been hiding.
Ahh, the reason for the stand-off. The bull snorted and began to herd his cows and his progeny down the road. I waited a full ten minutes before moving to give them time to make a leisurely exit.
I continued walking and felt the thrill of the encounter and eventual relief. Again, I heard the burble of the stream beside me and the songs of the white-crowned sparrows and could now peer leisurely at the flowering of the alders that resembled Buddha’s fingers. I felt a surge of joy, a recognition that this was exactly where I belonged, here alone on a trail early in the morning.
John W. Evans is the author of two memoirs, Should I Still Wish and Young Widower, and the poetry collection The Consolations. His works have received numerous prizes, including the Peace Corps Writers Award, the Foreword INDIE Silver Award, the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize, and the Trio Award.
John is currently a Draper Lecturer of Creative Nonfiction at Stanford University, where he was previously a Jones Lecturer and a Wallace Stegner Fellow. He has also taught the very popular “Writing the Memoir: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” course for many years through Stanford Continuing Studies (including upcoming in Spring 2020).
Stanford Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator and author of Thieves I’ve Known
Tom Kealey: John, you’ve written two memoirs and have taught the “Writing the Memoir” course to both undergraduates and adult students for many years now. Can you tell us about a particular book that inspired you as an early writer, and what that revealed to you about the possibilities of memoir?
John Evans: Cheryl Strayed’s essay, “The Love of My Life,” (which she later expanded into Wild) absolutely blew me away when I first read it in The Sun back in 2002. Her frankness and honesty were so surprising; her willingness to be vulnerable in one section, and then contentious in the next, all the while going headlong at the taboo of how one should grieve, and what one should feel as one grieves, were unlike anything I had ever read. I teach that essay in the first meeting of every “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” course. I find that students feel some of what I felt: liberated to explore their own experience without being too self-conscious about what they say or how they say it, and also, to begin to think about their private selves as more continuous than any identity they pick up along the way.
TK: Tell us a little more about the “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” course—what students will read, what shorter exercises they might explore, and what they’ll complete by the end of the quarter.
JE: We jump right in by writing on the first day, and at the start of every class that follows. Every writing exercise connects to the practice of craft. It can be a little dizzying to do so much reading and writing at first, but after the third week, students are using a wide vocabulary of formal craft to talk about their own writing, as well as the works of published authors. Along the way, we sketch out the sixteen-odd-century history of the memoir. Each week, I pair a couple of contemporary writers with the writer who first did something special in the form. For example, Kate Braestrup’s heartbreaking and inspiring memoir of redemption, Here If You Need Me, is read right alongside selections from Augustine’s redemptive Confessions and Joan Didion’s anti-redemption memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. By the end of the term, students will have planned, written, revised, and sought feedback on a stand-alone memoir essay or a chapter in a memoir book. I am eager and excited to engage with personal feedback and encouragement. That’s something that I think students appreciate about the course: I am always available to talk more about the work, at every step along the way.
TK: First chapters seem important to any book, but I think perhaps especially to the memoir. Could you tell us about the first chapter of your latest book, Should I Still Wish, and why you decided to enter the narrative in that particular way? Any thoughts overall on first chapters?
JE: Both of my memoirs started with very straightforward questions that I did not know the answers to. I think that’s a great place to start writing memoir: to use a question in order to write honestly toward new understanding. You may or may not get there, but you’ll at least be fully engaged along the way, and you’ll probably learn something, too. I didn’t think I would write a second memoir; I was young-ish (in my late thirties), and I had already written Young Widower. But a sentence got fixed in my head as I took Young Widower out into the world: “I left Indiana and drove toward happiness.” That seemed so happy! I couldn’t shake that sentence, and when I sat down and typed it out, I pretty soon found I had written a few dozen pages. Then I found myself writing toward a deeply unsettling idea that I did not understand. Why did I feel like my life before and after my first wife Katie’s death inspired conflicting allegiances—that I could not be faithful to the memory without disrespecting the continuing life, or the life without neglecting the memory? That required some real work. I did not always like where it led me. But I was also happy to be essentially transcribing, in great detail, some of the best moments of my early family life in my second marriage: my first son’s birth, our life in a multigenerational family home, and even some of the conversations I found myself imagining with Katie. I was happy to have a record of all of that. Many students in “Writing the Memoir” take the course because they want to transcribe some of their experiences, and make a record. I can certainly relate to that desire, having written both memoirs.
TK: Can you recall a particular scene that surprised you in your memoirs, in terms of what it revealed to you as a person looking back on those events? Any advice for students about how to dig deep in these types of scenes?
JE: Should I Still Wish takes its title from a conversation that I imagined having with Katie after my first son was born. I still feel shocked and a little ashamed at having imagined it, because the question feels very taboo to me: “Shouldn’t I still wish that you hadn’t died?” It’s an honest question, in that it reflects how conflicted I felt in that moment, to miss Katie while also feeling terrified that I might not have this life had she not died. Here’s what I have to say to students in the memoir class: you are not always writing memoir to transcribe your experiences. Sometimes, you are learning how you really feel about what has happened to you. Or, you are recording your perspective at this very present moment, which is not always the perspective that you will have later in life. Annie Dillard says something like this in her introduction to An American Childhood: if you want to remember something, don’t write it down, because what you write down will take the place of the memory. That’s certainly a risk. But the converse of that risk, I think, is worth it: if you do the writing you will have the record of your perspective today. You’ll probably want that perspective a few months or years from now.
TK: Your latest work in progress is a novel. Can you give a sneak peak into what you are exploring in that work?
JE: Oh, the novel is quite finished! Spring Past works out how good intentions can lead to terrible consequences, even when we mean well. A few years ago I tried to counsel a friend through a very different kind of grief than the one I experienced. The results were disastrous. I was pretty arrogant to think I had much to say about anyone else’s suffering. That experience humbled me. There is a vein of thinking, maybe especially here in the Bay Area, that we can use technology to “hack” fundamental human experiences like grief—to short-circuit them, and in the process, avoid pain. I’m thinking of Jonah Lerner’s writing in Wired about “forgetting pills,” the various meditation and grief apps, and some of the recent enthusiasm for psychedelics. We seem determined to do anything else except experience a complicated emotion, and then learn to live with it. Avoiding pain is as human as it gets, but when does the fear of pain cause us to lose touch with our humanity? It’s inspiring, while teaching memoir writing, to see so many different kinds of writers tackle so many different projects. A common worry among students new to “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” is that there can’t be anything new to say about personal experience, or even new ways to say it. But those students keep finding fresh inroads to their own lives. That’s wonderful. I like what a friend told me recently: that we only fail as writers when we repeat ourselves.
Sara Houghteling has been a beloved instructor for many years in the Stanford Continuing Studies Creative Writing program and is currently a visiting lecturer in the Stanford Department of English. She is also the host of Stanford Writers in Conversation, a series that brings a distinguished Stanford writer to center stage in conversation about the art and craft of writing. Sara is the author of the novel Pictures at an Exhibition, a New York Times Editor’s Choice and a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. She has received a Fulbright scholarship, an NEA fellowship, and many other awards including the Narrative Prize for her story “The Thomas Cantor.”
This is the second of a two-part conversation with Sara for The Writer’s Spotlight. The first part, which appeared in January, focused on this year's Stanford Writers in Conversation events, which will feature Namwali Serpell (February 27) and Mark Greif (April 30). In this month’s entry we talk about Sara’s own writing, teaching, and career.
Stanford Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator and author of Thieves I’ve Known
Tom Kealey: Sara, you and I have had a number of conversations throughout the years about the various drafts (early, middle, finished, and so on) of a work, and I know that you emphasize the drafting process with your students. Can you remember back to the first draft of your novel Pictures at an Exhibition? What did you know for sure in that early draft, and what were you still figuring out about Max, Rose, and their collective journey?
Sara Houghteling: I had one plot point that I knew I wanted to land on at the end of the novel—an ironic twist that would reveal itself in the final pages. And I had a version of the final line bouncing around in my head—I knew what the last word of the novel should be. Aside from that, the voice, the content, the structure all changed (rather alarmingly, probably, from my editor’s point of view). The draft of the novel that I sold was about 500 pages long, including a hundred pages of letters between characters, a clumsy attempt to shoehorn in a lot of historical information. Much of this was cut; the novel is now about half as long. As I often talk about with my students, writing scenes is a lot more work than writing summaries, so I had to work to learn to describe moments that launched plot and incorporated dialogue, interior thought, description, and setting. I’m still learning.
TK: “The Thomas Cantor” is one of my all-time favorite stories. I see something new each time I read it. In the story, you explore the real-life characters of Johann Sebastian Bach and Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, among others, and the creation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. What interested you about that composition in particular, and what did you discover in imagining it from a fiction perspective?
SH: Thanks, Tom! I was drawn to the Goldberg Variations in part because I’m at work on a long-term project, a novel, about a pianist, which I suppose is a really extended excuse to listen to as much classical piano music as possible. I love the intricate beauty of the Goldberg Variations in all the musical forms. Glenn Gould made two radically different recordings of it. In the one from 1955, he plays at a breakneck, almost maniacal tempo. In 1981, he re-recorded it, and this second version of the Variations is slow and mournful, and you can often hear Gould singing along. I suppose these two musical registers set the characters’ emotional parameters for the story.
TK: Writing about real-life people presents challenges and opportunities. As does writing about completely fictional characters. Could you talk about these challenges and opportunities (and delights and frustrations)?
SH: For “The Thomas Cantor” in particular, I knew I had to write about a Baltic German diplomat (who’d made his career at the Russian court). What I know about 18th-century Holy Roman imperial history I know only from books. But I can guess more about a character who is a successful, lifelong diplomat. He’s calculating in all that he does—that old saw about how “character is destiny.” So if my protagonist is a Machiavellian strategist to his very core, I can guess how he is going to use his tactical mind to try to outmaneuver Bach for the young prodigy Johann Goldberg’s devotion.
As for frustrations, as Henry James talks about in his famous letter to Sarah Orne Jewett, it’s a challenge to write about the 18th century with a 21st-century sensibility; I suppose that caused me to write the protagonist’s inner thoughts with more restraint.
TK: Do you think that being a parent has deepened or changed your writing in some particular way? Perhaps how you observe the world, or how you create characters?
SH: I’ve certainly found to be true what others have told me—being with children asks you to look at the world anew. On a lighter side, children’s books have a way of creeping into my imagination too, though not always in the best way. Sometimes when my children and I are reading a series, like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, I’ll start having my characters talk like Ma and Pa Ingalls. This is not ideal.
TK: Tell us more about the novel you’re working on now. What interests and excites you about that project?
SH: I’m working on a novel called Music for the Left-Hand Alone. It’s about two brothers who both play piano. One is a genius, the other is musically proficient but motivated to play primarily by the desire to “speak” this language with his brother. Then the piano prodigy loses the use of his right hand under mysterious circumstances. It’s about an intense sibling relationship and also about one-handed piano music, which has a long and storied tradition. I love this body of piano music and love writing about it—which is both the joy and the challenge of the project. I’ve heard that this is ill-advised, that writing about music can be “like dancing about architecture.” It can be static in a scene, and the technical musical language can be off-putting or alienating. Still, I’m interested in exploring the question of what does it mean to be given an exceptional gift—what are its exigences, and how can one live and change when that gift is inexorably altered.
Sara Houghteling is the host of Stanford Writers in Conversation (SWiC), an event held each winter and spring that brings a distinguished Stanford writer to center stage in conversation about the art and craft of writing. Sara has been a beloved instructor for many years in the Stanford Continuing Studies Creative Writing program and she is currently a visiting lecturer in the Stanford Department of English. She is the author of the novel Pictures at an Exhibition, a New York Times Editor’s Choice and a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Sara has received a Fulbright scholarship, an NEA fellowship, and many other awards including the Narrative Prize for her story “The Thomas Cantor.”
We’ll be talking with Sara in a two-part series this January and February, first about the Stanford Writers in Conversation series, and then about Sara’s own writing, teaching, and career. Visitors to SWiC in 2020 will be Namwali Serpell (February 27) and Mark Greif (April 30).
Stanford Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator and author of Thieves I’ve Known
Tom Kealey: Sara, how do you prepare for a Stanford Writers in Conversation evening and what would you like an audience to experience and learn during the event?
Sara Houghteling: I love being the host of Stanford Writers in Conversation and feel so grateful each time I have the chance to take a deep dive into the work of an author I admire. I have a great time reading in concentric circles around the author’s novel or collection. For example, with NoViolet Bulawayo I got to immerse myself in Zimbabwean history and read her story “Hitting Budapest,” which won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2011 and inspired her wonderful 2013 novel We Need New Names. Overall, I hope audiences will have a sense of both the origins of an author’s project and the craft and process that shaped it.
TK: The SWiC events are particularly focused on craft: how writers come up with their ideas, how they create scenes and dialogue, how they move through multiple drafts of a work. Of course, each writer’s process is different, but have you noticed any shared experiences among the writers you’ve interviewed?
SH: If there’s any overlap, it’s how much time writing takes—how many drafts are discarded, how many chapters and reams of research and lovingly rendered sentences are left on the cutting room floor. And, I suppose, a shared sense of mischief…while in real life we hope our daily path will generally be as smooth as possible, the authors in SWiC often explain how their process involves asking themselves, “What obstacles can I put in my characters’ way?”
TK: One of the most memorable evenings of SWiC was your conversation with Daniel Mason, a Stanford physician and author of many books including The Piano Tuner and The Winter Soldier. Daniel also happens to be your husband, which made for a very delightful and humorous conversation–you two had the audience laughing again and again. Could you tell us a little about that evening, and how you and Daniel experienced it?
SH: Daniel had been working on The Winter Soldier for as long as I’d known him (it was fourteen years in the making), so it was wonderful to have the book come out and to share it with our friends in the community and family in the audience that night. Interviewing Daniel was a different experience, because obviously we’d discussed the book and its process and we’re often hammering at writing problems together and discussing craft—so the public conversation came with this caveat. Still, we didn’t plan the event, so there was an element of spontaneity that kept the conversation moving. I might have known that there was a particular topic that he finds interesting, and could direct the conversation toward it, but I wasn’t certain how that would turn out.
TK: We’ve received so many great insights about the process of writing over the years during the SWiC events. We could list dozens of them. But are there one or two that stand out to you? Or one that has particularly helped your own writing process?
SH: There have been many, but I’ll pick two, for the ways they have added to my own writing process as well as to my teaching toolbox. I have a lot of students writing stories from the point of view of children, which I think is particularly hard to do. Lynn Stegner had some great advice about “finding the margin of distortion” when writing from a child’s perspective, and that when we do, we have to accentuate the young character’s experience of the five senses since other kinds of perception will be off limits. Lysley Tenorio’s collection Monstress deploys voice and point of view very skillfully and his explanation about these craft issues has also stayed with me. As writers, we have to ask ourselves, “What voice can possess the reader most fully? What information does the reader need access to?” He characterized first person as a more confessional point of view and third person as allowing leaps in time and changes in perspective. He also spoke about how when we’re writing “emotional” scenes, there’s an inversely proportional relationship between the volume of the prose and the intensity of the character’s emotions—in other words, the stronger the emotions, the more underplayed the writing can be.
TK: Please tell us a little about our two visitors for 2020—Namwali Serpell and Mark Greif. What are you hoping to explore with them?
SH: Namwali Serpell’s novel The Old Drift is an epic—comparisons to Dickens and Marquez are apt here. We begin in colonial Northern Rhodesia in 1904 and sweep forward to the near future. Craft-wise, I’m excited to talk to her about balancing the historical elements of Zambia’s colonial period and independence with the narrative demands of a novel and the creation of her unusual and fabulist characters (the novel’s tragic chorus is a swarm of mosquitoes who speak, or buzz rather, in the first person plural; and one of the novel’s heroines is so completely covered in hair that it grows long enough to conceal her entirely within a day no matter how it’s cut). Namwali’s also a brilliant scholar and professor of both literature and creative writing at Cal, so I’m intrigued to hear about how her academic interests nourish her fiction, and vice versa.
Mark Greif recently left the New School for Stanford’s English Department and I think his arrival here is kind of like basketball’s Los Angeles Lakers getting LeBron James from the Cleveland Cavaliers: a major talent moving West. Mark’s one of the founders of n+1 magazine, which first came out in 2004, and since then he’s been one of the country’s leading critics and literary minds, who synthesizes both high and low culture and links it to our country’s literary and philosophical past in deeply insightful ways. I think Mark has a unique perspective on both our contemporary consumer culture and how it’s playing out in fiction today, and I’m excited to hear him talk about the intersection of these two. We’ll discuss Mark’s most recent collection of essays, Against Everything, about which Zadie Smith said, “Mark Greif writes a contrarian, skeptical prose that is at the same time never cynical: it opens out on to beauty and the possibility of change.” I think that about sums it up!
"My trip to Djerassi was punctuated by a fierce winter storm. The unique beauty of the ranch is somehow heightened by the wild weather rolling through the valley. Writing is about getting the wide-angle perspective of human experience. The view there is a humbling reminder of how small we are. The fellowship of sharing stories and family meals reveals how much the community can fill that space."
[Note: The 2020 Djerassi retreat has passed; details for the next retreat will be available next year.]
We are delighted to invite Stanford creative writing students working on fiction (short or long) or memoir to apply to our annual Creative Writing Retreat at Djerassi. This historic artists’ residency, located in the Santa Cruz Mountains, provides an incredible setting for eleven writers to be inspired by the spectacular surrounding nature, as well as the presence of their fellow creators, all gathered to form a creative community for five very special days and nights of writing and workshopping, reflection and readings.
For those of us accustomed to meeting a whole host of responsibilities, squeezing in writing when we can, it’s a rare treat to spend this intense period of time immersed in creative work, in a place that feels removed from modern digital life. Last year, the retreat kicked off with a visit from a bobcat, his sleek form visible out in the grass. We all gathered to watch him through the floor-to-ceiling windows surrounding the room where we met for our workshops each afternoon, warmed by the fire of a woodstove kept blazing. Having led these workshops at the Djerassi retreat for the past two years, I can honestly say that it’s one of the best weeks of my year, regenerative and inspiring at a very deep level.
Following is what some of our participants from last year have to say about their experience, as well as more information about the retreat.
Malena Watrous, Online Writing Lead Instructor, Stanford Continuing Studies
"Djerassi. The name itself is special. Now add in the setting, the staff, and all they contribute to make your stay eminently inviting, and you have a recipe for a productive week. Expect to write, read, and talk about writing and reading. Expect to eat well, enjoy nature, and get to know your writing-self along with a handful of other skilled writing-selves who will become friends and supporters. The Creative Writing Retreat at Djerassi is an extraordinary experience. I transport myself back to those moments whenever I need motivation and inspiration."
“Attending the Djerassi Writing Retreat was the best thing I’ve done for my writing in a long time. It propelled me out of a post-holiday writing lull, renewed my focus, and introduced me to a terrific group of writers (and a small herd of deer who visited the hill outside my door every morning). I can’t imagine a better writerly vacation, nor a better way to kick off the new year. Djerassi provided exactly the right balance of solitude, direction, and companionship for me to be productive and to feel part of a community of writers. I worked hard all morning and looked forward to the terrific afternoon workshops, lazy nature hikes, and hanging out with new friends at lunch and dinner. (Chef Matt’s food deserves its own separate paragraph—so delicious and healthy that I shamelessly asked for seconds—and thirds). I don’t know whether to credit the excellent instruction, the gorgeous views, or the peace of the place, but I came up with some of my best ideas while staring at that herd of Djerassi deer, and I returned home with lots of fresh pages and new writing momentum that lasted throughout the year.”
"How pleased am I with my room. It is a room of my own. It contains the solitude I so crave. As we workshop each other’s pieces in the Artist Barn, there is a feeling of rapt attention, and respect for each selection. Beautiful meals here are made with care by a gifted chef. We all look forward to the conversations at these communal meals, laugh at the chore bowl as it goes around. On the first day I knew this would be a place for me, just the kind I like, isolated and beautiful. What I didn't know was that I would come to love it as much as I did, but I have it firmly tucked into a pocket of my heart. If I close my eyes, I can still see those steep hills and the wash of the ocean in the distance."
—Trudie Scott (from a journal she kept at Djerassi)
Creative Writing Retreat at Djerassi
January 15–20, 2020
Private bathroom (4 available): $2850
Shared bathroom (7 available): $2450
Set in the beautiful Santa Cruz mountains above the town of Woodside, the Stanford Continuing Studies Creative Writing Retreat at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program offers the opportunity to recharge your creative energies, recenter your projects, and gain a head of steam for your next phase of writing. Over five nights and days, we will begin each day with optional yoga, then breakfast, and then four hours of private writing time. Students will meet again for lunch followed by our shared workshop, where we will discuss the pieces that each student submitted before coming to Djerassi. Afternoons will also feature individual conferences with the instructor, additional writing time, and optional activities such as a sculpture tour and nature hikes. We will meet again as a group for a wine hour, then dinner. Evenings will host communal readings in the gorgeous natural environment.
For more information, including details on workshop focus, airport pickup, and application process, please refer to the course description and application instructions. [Note: The 2020 Djerassi retreat has passed; details for the next retreat will be available next year.]
Photos courtesy of Nate McFadden.
This month we are delighted to celebrate the publication of poet and Stanford Online Creative Writing instructor Graham Barnhart’s first book of poetry: The War Makes Everyone Lonely. Graham was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, and before that he served as a Special Forces medic in Iraq and Afghanistan, and received an MFA from Ohio State. We asked Graham to share some thoughts about how teaching poetry informs his writing, or vice versa, and he generously provided this response.
Online Writing Lead Instructor
I know this is selfish, but one of the best things about teaching poetry is that I always end up giving students advice I should follow myself. Distance and perspective make it easier to see someone else’s problem as well as possible solutions or ways forward. I hesitate to use the word “problem.” I suppose “challenge” or “obstruction” might be better words. But even those terms carry the assumption that whatever the thing is, it’s getting in the way. Preventing the poem. One reason we find writing pleasurable (and frustrating) is the challenge of finding something new in the language.
It’s like a playing a video game. When you get stuck and can’t find the magic key hidden at the bottom of the ten-story underground labyrinth, it’s tempting to ask the internet. Somewhere there is a map. A video walk-through. The labyrinth becomes a hallway. You get the key. You get all the secrets along the way, but none of them is secret. That is to say, the struggle and the process are the writing. We all know this, and we all forget it.
But I was talking about advice and distance and perspective. Right now, I’m using Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook in my course. She advocates an exercise-based approach to writing, and as I encourage students to think of the prompts as practice—to emphasize skills development rather than drafting toward a finished, publishable poem—I realize I haven’t been approaching my own work like that for a long time.
I just published a book. I know what I want to do for the next one—explore the environmental impact of war, and ways the hierarchies of need and value get rearranged when confronted with extremity. More and more I’ve felt that idea smothering the poetry. Not the poems, but the poetry. The ideas are there. The concepts feel ripe and urgent. But it has been a struggle to bring them to the page in a way that feels interesting to me. So, more and more I’ve been trying to turn back toward craft as a practice. More and more I feel grateful for the perspective and distance teaching provides, the frequent reminders that the challenges of writing poetry don’t really change.
Graham Barnhart’s new book is available from University of Chicago Press.