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.
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!
December 2019"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."
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.
Photos courtesy of Nate McFadden.
November 2019This 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.
October 2019Literary lovers, get ready for an exciting three days of Litquake events hosted by Stanford Continuing Studies! Litquake is the largest annual independent literary festival on the West Coast and is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. This month we are spotlighting these upcoming events, so that people who live in the area and would like to meet award-winning Stanford authors, learn more about our Online Writing Certificate program, and hear our students’ work can enjoy live readings and interact with the writers!
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Bay Area literary festival, we kick off with our own Stanford Litquake on October 17, featuring five extraordinary authors currently teaching at Stanford. On the weekend of October 18-19, students who have completed the Stanford Continuing Studies Online Writing Certificate (OWC) and finished writing a novel over the past year will come to Stanford to receive their certificates and participate in the festivities surrounding Litquake. Some of these certificate recipients will be doing a reading on campus at the Stanford Bookstore, while others will read at Lit Crawl in San Francisco, a one-night literary pub crawl that is the culmination of the Litquake festival.
Here are more details about these upcoming events open to the public:
Stanford LitquakeOn Thursday evening, October 17, from 7:30 pm to 9:00 pm, Stanford’s Litquake will bring to the stage five extraordinary authors currently teaching at Stanford who will read from their most recent works: Samina Ali (Madras on Rainy Days), Tom Kealey (Thieves I’ve Known), Charif Shanahan (Into Each Room We Enter without Knowing), Austin Smith (Flyover Country), and Lynn Stegner (For All the Obvious Reasons). For both aspiring writers and book lovers alike, this thought-provoking evening promises to delight, transport, and inspire. Learn more »
Student Reading at Stanford BookstoreOn Friday morning, October 18, from 9:30 am to 11:30 am, we will host a reading in the Stanford Bookstore, where any of our students who are in town to receive their certificates may read a 5-minute excerpt from their novel. There’s a coffee shop inside the bookstore, so come grab a cup of joe and listen to some wonderful writing from novels that are finished, but yet to hit the presses!
519 Lasuen Mall
Stanford, CA 94305
Student Reading at Lit Crawl SFOn Saturday evening, October 19, from 5:00 pm to 6:00 pm, we will host a reading as part of Lit Crawl in San Francisco’s vibrant Mission District. During Lit Crawl, venues all over the Mission neighborhood open their doors to readings, and thousands of people meander the streets, listening to authors share their work while sipping on cocktails. Our OWC reading at Lit Crawl has become a cherished tradition, and we highly encourage you to come to the reading if you're in the area.
Latin American Club
3286 22nd Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Peter Fish served as Sunset magazine’s travel editor for two decades. He received a Lowell Thomas Gold Medal for environmental journalism and Time Inc.’s Henry R. Luce Award. Writers whose work he has edited include Susan Orlean, Jane Smiley, and Tobias Wolff. He was the 2018–19 Rachel Rivers-Coffey Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Appalachian State University. Fish received an MA in creative writing from Stanford. He is teaching “Writing the Globe: Travel Writing in the 21st Century” for Stanford Continuing Studies in Fall 2019.
Tom Kealey, Author of Thieves I’ve Known, former Stegner Fellow, Jones Lecturer, and Stanford Continuing Studies On-Campus Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator
Tom Kealey: Can you tell us about a particular travel writer whom you admired and who influenced you early in your career? What was the impact they had on you?
Peter Fish: One writer who influenced me powerfully was Joan Didion. She’s not generally thought of as a travel writer. But some of the essays in her first two collections, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, represent travel writing at its most evocative and enduring. Even in short pieces like “The Seacoast of Despair” (a portrait of Gilded Age Newport, Rhode Island) and “At The Dam” (on Hoover Dam), Didion’s essays do what good travel writing needs to do — paint a place indelibly, make you feel what it means to her and what it means to the world. She does so in language that is spare, clear, and precise, so that even when she’s writing about places you’ve been to, you see them for the first time. As for her longer essays, one of them, “Notes from a Native Daughter,” is for me among the best things ever written about California. We’ll be reading and discussing it and learning from it in class.
TK: You’ll be teaching “Writing the Globe: Travel Writing in the 21st Century” for Stanford Continuing Studies this fall. Could you tell us a little about the course and what students might expect to learn and experience during the quarter?
PF: The first thing this course will be is…fun. I say that for a specific reason. Travel writing is the one writing genre where you really want to enjoy doing it — because that pleasure, that passion translates directly to the page. Even if you’re writing about a travel experience that is sorrowful, or a disaster — and there are brilliant travel essays along those lines — you need to throw yourself into the writing with all your heart. Beyond that, I’m certain that everyone has at least one great travel tale in them, whether it’s a story from Bali or Brussels or Benicia. Through reading and writing and critiquing we’ll discover these stories and make them come to life on our pages.
TK: The art and craft of interviewing is an essential skill for travel writers, or really any writer of nonfiction. Could you share with us some insight into what works well for you as an interviewer? I’d be particularly interested in ”off-the-cuff” or unscheduled interviews. How do you interview someone who you simply meet as part of your writing and traveling adventure?
PF: Interviewing is indeed an essential skill for anybody wanting to write travel stories, or nonfiction of any kind. Even if it’s not a task that comes naturally to you—and it didn’t for me — it can be honed with practice. For scheduled, planned interviews, the key is to know as much about your interviewee as possible ahead of time, think hard about what you want to ask them — and also give them the chance to go off in directions you weren’t expecting. The unscheduled, off-the-cuff interview operates by a different set of rules. You’re writing about someplace interesting, you see somebody doing something interesting, you want to talk to them about it then and there. If you’re naturally extroverted, no problem. If, like me, you aren’t, you overcome your shyness and go talk to them anyway. It’s a lot like meeting somebody at a party—you want to convince the other person that you’re going to be fun to converse with and that you won’t take up too much of their time. One key bit of advice: people love to share their expertise. If you’re talking to an ornithologist or a rock-climber or a plein air painter, ask them how they got so good at what they do. They’ll be happy to tell you.
TK: You were an editor and writer for Sunset magazine for well over twenty years. Please tell us about a story or assignment that was particularly challenging for you, and how it helped you grow as a writer and/or a person.
PF: One particularly challenging story was a recent one — a feature story about Big Sur I wrote for Coastal Living magazine that was published this Summer. What made it challenging? I was writing about a place I love, that I know pretty well, and that I have written about before — and that many other very good writers have written about before. How was I going to come up with something new, something surprising, something that hadn’t been done a thousand times before? I felt intimidated. I tried — and I hope succeeded — to overcome this challenge in two ways. First, with any travel story — and especially one intended for a magazine — you need to find news. What makes Big Sur different in 2019 from how it was in 2009 or 1969? Insane real estate prices? Instagram tourism? That was what I needed to find out. Even more important, I needed to talk to people who would help me find that out—Big Sur locals who had grown up on this coast and could tell me how it had changed and how it had stayed the same. Hearing their stories, seeing Sur through their eyes, made all the difference. The people who are from a place will always come up with insights you would have never discovered on your own; it’s through them that the soul of the place will emerge.
TK: Would you be willing to share one of your “hidden gem” destinations as a traveler? What is a place that is perhaps not widely known, but that you feel is an important place for people to experience? And what was your first visit to that destination like?
PF: Last fall, I spent about ten days taking a slow-paced road trip through the American South. I was particularly interested in visiting sites associated with the African American experience: history I’d read about but maybe not fully felt because I hadn’t set foot in the places where it happened. Fortunately, in the last decade the South has been graced with a remarkable growth of museums and other institutions devoted to African American history, from slavery through the Civil War to 2019. In Atlanta, there’s Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park. In Memphis, the Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated, has been transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum, which encompasses more than 150 years of Civil Rights history — from Jim Crow to Brown v. Board of Education to today. West of New Orleans, the Whitney Plantation is unique in that it tells the plantation story from the point of view of the enslaved people: not Gone With the Wind, but 12 Years a Slave. Finally, in Montgomery, Alabama, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice honors the estimated 4,400 African Americans lynched in the United States between 1877 and 1950; the nearby Legacy Museum puts what you see at the memorial into historical context. It was a life-changing, sometimes emotionally shattering trip, one I think every American should take.
Lynn Stegner is the author of five works of fiction, including the novel Because a Fire Was in My Head and the story collection For All the Obvious Reasons. She has received numerous awards including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a Fulbright Award, a Faulkner Society Gold Medal, and the Raymond Carver Short Story Award. Lynn worked for many years in the wine industry in California and France, and it was noted that she had the exceptionally keen palate of an “organoleptic freak.” She has been a whitewater boatman, rafting most of the rivers of the western United States, and she is an enthusiastic student of fly fishing, opera, and many other pursuits. Lynn is a beloved long-time instructor in Stanford Continuing Studies, where she has taught courses on novel writing, the memoir, nature writing, and this fall is teaching a new course, “Essential Elements for Creative Writers: The Narrative Toolbox.”
Author of Thieves I’ve Known, former Stegner Fellow, Jones Lecturer, and Stanford Continuing Studies On-Campus Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator
Tom Kealey: Many of your life experiences and interests emerge and are explored in your stories and novels. It seems that your life’s adventures are fuel for your writing. But in fact is the opposite true? Is your writing fuel for your life’s adventures?
Lynn Stegner: There is a great deal of cross-pollination between my own life and the lives I live through characters caught up in different situations, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Otherwise, one can become estranged from essential and helpful elements within each half. It would be self-alienating. So the recreation and nonwriting work I have found myself doing, like the years I spent in the international wine industry, have sometimes landed in a book. But the reverse is just as true: every story depends upon research that makes the story credible as a real fictional place with persuasive fictional people.
For instance, before sitting down to compose the novella Hired Man, about an eighteen-year-old dairy farmer in Vermont, I spent three months milking cows at five every morning on the dairy farm at the bottom of our hill. That taught me a lot about that unique life — the smell of manure, the lowing of the cows, the brutally hard labor. In one of my novels I needed to know what it was like to be incarcerated in a women’s federal prison, and so I secured permission from the governor of California to spend one day at the penitentiary in Tehachapi. One day was long enough! The research for an early novel sent me up to a remote island off the northeast tip of Vancouver Island where I lived with a marine biologist for two weeks so that I could experience the orcas of Johnstone Strait directly and intimately, never mind the seasickness and the days when we got twelve (and on one day, twenty-four) inches of rain. A month during the wheat harvest in Saskatchewan was part of the homework for yet another novel. And so on.
One of the great side benefits to conducting in situ research for stories is that every trip I take is wonderfully, conveniently justified. And then there are simply the wild situations I end up in, like having to hitch a ride on a naval cargo jet from San Miguel Island to Point Mugu. If you’re creating whole worlds on the page, you’ve got to set your feet in those places on the planet.
TK: As far as just having a good, productive writing day, what are the best practices for you? What puts you in the best place to write your best work?
LS: Getting started each day generates a lot of anxiety, and for me one of the best remedies for that, or at least a way to navigate that fairly predictable rough water, is to keep a regular schedule. It’s remarkable how simple habit can carry one through. I head to my study around 9:00 a.m. and the first thing I do is read aloud a poem, sometimes the same one many days in a row, just to tune my ear to the English language as an instrument with rhythms and nuances. If I happen to be reading a novel by someone who writes beautiful sentences, then I’ll read a few pages of that, certain passages aloud if they’re especially fine. It’s easy to get diverted by reading, though, so I limit myself to no more than ten pages. Then I’m ready to revise whatever I wrote the day before, plus anything that precedes it that still needs tightening and polishing. I work chapter to chapter, so that when one is finished, and excepting plot points and factual particulars that may surface later, the chapter is done. Dialogue I always read aloud to ensure that it sounds natural.
There are writers who are perfectly comfortable writing out their entire books and then going back to revise and clean them up, sometimes many times, but I clean as I go along. No method is better than any other. It is a matter of temperament. I can’t seem to leave a mess in my wake. And more often than not I discover deeper meanings while revising, or an interesting complexity in a character, which may then send the narrative in a slightly different direction and even change the course of the novel.
This clean-as-you-go method has the advantage of saving me time when I reach the last chapter, because I’ve seldom wandered too far off track. Revision takes as long as it takes and there’s nothing served in allocating a specific amount of time for it. At last, I’m ready to push forward into new material. Maybe I’ve got three hours left, maybe just one. I stop working generally after four to five hours in my study, and if it was an especially good day, I’ll go back to my desk later in the afternoon for an hour or so to see what exactly grew on the page that morning. Included in all of the above is a certain quite necessary amount of time spent staring out the window. The three Rs: reading, (w)riting, and ruminating.
TK: Is there a particular moment or experience in your life that you find that you keep coming back to in your writing? If so, how does that experience shape your storytelling?
LS: In effect what you are asking is what question haven’t I been able to answer, book after book. Writers usually return to experiences that haven’t sorted themselves out yet. The dust is still swirling and the whole picture can’t quite be discerned with enough clarity to paste it into the photo album and close the cover. This is why first novels tend to be more autobiographical than later ones — there’s just more littering up the road, more that needs to be written out of the way. In my case I would not say that there is any single defining experience that continues to ask my attention or to imply that I haven’t in some sense mastered it. But there was an extended situation that continues to infuse the emotional and psychological atmosphere of my work, and that arises from having grown up mostly in institutions–first a foster home, then four years in an orphanage, followed by six years in a boarding school. Institutions are not necessarily bad places. You always know that there are people who care for you, but they don’t love you. So the questions what is love? how do you authenticate it? why does it succeed or fail? lie beneath many of my narratives.
TK: Your new course for Fall 2019 is “Essential Elements for Creative Writers: The Narrative Toolbox.” It’s our first lecture course in Stanford Continuing Studies Creative Writing, though I know the course will be quite interactive. How do you envision this course?
LS: It’s going to be a real mix of approaches to topic — lectures, readings, group discussions, in-class writing exercises, and volunteer oral presentations. We might, for instance, take a great story, break it down into its moving parts, and see how — and why — it works. What makes one plot a thrilling roller coaster ride and another like driving a tractor in low gear down an interstate? Or why are some characters so vivid we begin to confuse them with people we’ve actually known or met, while others are as flat as cardboard cutouts? As with any art form — music, painting, ceramics — there are actual tools and devices the artist uses to create a final product. For example, during the class session that we devote to character development, we will identify the series of points in a specific narrative when the writer enlarges upon and complicates the character as the story unfolds. Obviously characters do not arrive on the page fully formed. Getting to know them is an ongoing process. And then they change! Or they ought to. Every week will have a different focus. We will read about it, talk about it, consider specific examples, and then pick up the tool and try our own hands at it. It should be a very lively “lecture” course.
TK: I know you’ve been working hard on a new novel. Would you be willing to share a detail or two about what you’ve been exploring?
LS: Guilt — in a word. But if you had asked me that two years ago I could not have reliably said what the book explores. It has taken me three hundred pages to figure out the deepest thematic currents, and I guess I would say that they have to do with the burden of guilt human beings seem to readily accept, frequently without enough cause. I also wanted to look at the peculiar dynamics of twins as they relate to guilt and protection. It happens that I have a twin brother, as well as several friends who are twins, and so I have a special insight into the unique advantages and dilemmas of that relationship. On the surface, and in terms of the plot, it’s a novel that considers directly the effects of human beings, a brutally copious species, on the rest of the planetary community of life through an environmental crisis that occurred twenty years ago in Mexico.
Samina Ali is an award-winning author as well as a curator and a popular speaker. Her debut novel, Madras on Rainy Days, received France’s prestigious Prix du Premier Roman Etranger Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award in Fiction. She teaches in the Stanford Continuing Studies program, including "Novel Writing: The Art of Spinning Tales" (Summer 2019) and "Novel Writing: The First Chapter and Beyond" (Fall 2019).
Tom Kealey, Jones Lecturer in Creative Writing, Stanford; On-Campus Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator, Stanford Continuing Studies
Tom Kealey: Layla, the protagonist of Madras on Rainy Days, is such a complex, conflicted, and compelling character. How did you first discover/imagine her and how did you go about helping her emerge within the narrative of the novel?
Samina Ali: Creating Layla was actually a difficult process because there weren't any books at that time that depicted an American Muslim woman, and especially not one from India. I didn't have any true examples of what I was trying to do. As a new writer, it's important to have books as guides and inspiration, to both emulate and resist. It's the push and pull that can help young writers to understand their vision more clearly. Without that, I felt in many ways that I was writing in a void. Small questions of craft became pressing decisions: Do I set the book in India or the US or both? How much of Indian Muslim culture can I explain to Western readers while keeping the plot moving forward? Because I have to essentially teach while telling a story, should the narrative be in third person or can I get away with first?
TK: I know that one of your interests is the intersection of fiction and nonfiction. On the one hand, they share so many similarities of narrative storytelling, and on the other hand they deviate in important and distinctive ways. How do you see the similarity of these forms, as a teacher and writer?
SA: Whether I'm teaching fiction or nonfiction, I tell my students the same thing: there's a big difference between fact and truth. We're not journalists. We're not chasing down facts. As creative writers, we're responsible for conveying the truth: whether that's the truth of your lived experience, as in nonfiction writing, or the truth of human emotion, which is so important to get right in fiction, whether you're writing literary or fantasy.
TK: And then, obviously, writers approach fiction and nonfiction in different ways. That said, if you are telling a story that is in a gray area between fiction and nonfiction, how do you go about choosing the form that fits that narrative in the best way?
SA: To be honest, that feels more like a question for the agent and editor. I think the job of the writer is to write the story that's demanding to be told, to just be a creative artist. Only after you've done the hard work and written the book do questions of marketing come into play. I know that sounds crazy. After all, fiction and nonfiction are separate and distinct genres. As an author, you're the one who decides, right? Well, marketing doesn't always see it this way. After you're done with the book, you're no longer in the driver's seat. The publishing house is. They get control the minute you sell the book. When my novel was coming out, memoirs were very popular. And because I had personal elements in my book, elements of truth, there was a big debate about whether to label it as a novel or a memoir. Which would sell more? Because so much of my book was fictionalized, I was relieved when it was decided to label the book as a novel. But let me tell you: even though it was shelved in the bookstore under fiction, all the marketing of the novel — which means all the publicity and interviews I subsequently gave — highlighted the memoir aspect!
TK: Is there a particular piece of writing advice that has influenced you in your writing career? If so, what is that advice, and how do you go about infusing it into your creative work and into your classroom?
SA: Not only are there many years between my first and second books, but each book has taken a good many years to write. In the amount of time it's taken me to write one complete novel and a draft of a second book, other writers have gone on to complete and publish multiple books. One friend of mine has ten books to her name! Another friend went on to win a Pulitzer Prize! When I see how much other writers are producing, it's hard not to get down on myself. But I've learned that we each have a different path and you have to get to a place where you not only accept your individual path but also relax into it.
In the end, for instance, the reason so much time has elapsed between my books is because I'm not only a writer. The publication of my novel actually jumpstarted my activism work around Muslim women's issues, which attracted the attention of the US State Department. That led to a side career as a speaker — my TEDx talk has had over 4.5 million views! I was also asked to curate an exhibition for the Global Fund for Women on leading Muslim women around the world. And because I was the first to curate a global, virtual exhibition on Muslim women, that directly led me to be invited to begin a new, tremendously exciting project that has taken up a great deal of my time. Over the past months, I've been pulling all-nighters as I rush to help formalize the initial ideas for curating three groundbreaking exhibitions that will be featured at the Dubai Expo 2020. This project excites me the most. But, at the same time as I've been working on it, I've been teaching graduate MFA students, raising two kids, getting ready to teach my Fall 2019 course at Stanford, and trying my best to finish my next book.
All of us are in this boat. We have daytime jobs or kids or sick parents or multiple projects going at the same time or depression or some life event that pulls us away from our writing. Instead of adding more pressure onto yourself, blaming yourself, and feeling guilty for not writing, I think it's important to accept whatever is happening in the moment. Because here's the truth that many don't know, the truth that I tell my students when they're concerned that they're not writing enough: even when you're not actively writing on the page, some unconscious part of your brain is still wrestling with and working through the story, so that when you do finally have the time and emotional space to get back to your writing, you'll see the progress your brain has made, figuring things out in the storyline even when you weren't consciously aware.
So widen your definition of what a writer does — because being entirely focused on your writing may not be for you. When you accept and relax into your unique path, you can then relax into your particular writing (and non-writing) process!
TK: What writing project are you working on these days, and what is it teaching you?
SA: For more than eight years now, I've been working on my next book. It's the story of how I nearly died giving birth to my son at a top hospital in the nation simply because the doctors wouldn't take my concerns seriously. I actually began writing the book at the urging of my neurologist. At the time, I'd suffered such extensive brain trauma that no one thought I'd recover. But I took my healing into my own hands, created my own milestones, and eventually, after several long years, got myself back to being what my neurologist called "healed." He was so stunned he told me that he could only guess at what happens inside the head of a patient who has suffered brain trauma. But I actually know. And since I happened to also be a writer, he thought it would be beneficial to many if I wrote about my recovery.
Well, the first time I wrote the story, I did so as a novel. After all, I'd already published a novel. I was trained as a novelist. It seemed natural. But when my editor read it, she told me that the true story wanted to break through — that the fictional narrative was holding it back. So I had an entire novel that I could do nothing with. Two or three years later, I took another stab and wrote the story as a memoir, as she'd suggested. This time, my agent read it and said, "Where this book ends, that's where it needs to begin." So that meant another full draft and more years of work that went nowhere. I started the next version where the last one ended and realized my agent was absolutely right. Beginning where I had ended the story made it much more powerful. But it also meant I wasn't quite sure where to go next.
So I wrote and wrote, thinking that I was still writing about recovering from brain damage — even though the book had undergone two incarnations. But as my agent and I discovered at the end of that full draft of the book, recovering from trauma is repetitive and slow and undramatic and agonizing — basically, everything a story should not be! So now I had three full drafts of my book on my computer and not one was right. To prevent me from writing yet another full draft and losing yet more years, my agent and I agreed that I would now write a section at a time and deliver it to her. Because the healing process isn't exciting literary material, I've incorporated larger issues into the book: Islam and its views on life and death, the myth that martyrs receive seventy-two virgins in paradise, our fears about Muslims mixed in with my own childhood growing up in the US as an immigrant. Basically, I speak about women's rights versus traditions, faith versus fundamentalism, immigration versus nationalism, and issues of life and death, and I do so in a very personal way.
I wouldn't say that I've learned patience through this process, as many might think. But I will say that I've learned that a book has a life force of its own, that it goes out into the world only after you, the writer, have matured and developed enough to write the story that the book is demanding to be told.
This month we feature Lydia Fitzpatrick, whose debut novel, Lights All Night Long, is about a Russian exchange student who arrives in Louisiana shortly after his brother is charged with murder, and who works to exonerate him from afar. Lydia has a long and varied association with Stanford. I first had the pleasure of meeting her when she took an online novel-writing workshop of mine many years back, not long after she finished her MFA program at Michigan. I remember being blown away by her incredible writing submission (some of which eventually made it into this novel) and unsurprised when she subsequently received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship. Coming full circle, Lydia has also taught for our Online Creative Writing Program. It’s a huge treat to celebrate this phenomenal publication by a former student and former instructor! Written in gorgeous prose, with indelible characters, the novel is a literary tour de force, a page-turning mystery with a truly original setup. It was an Amazon Best Book of April 2019, and the Los Angeles Times called it “A luminous debut. . . . It's hard not to read the book in a single sitting." I completely agree, and urge you to read it for yourself.
Malena Watrous, Online Writing Lead Instructor
Malena Watrous: I still remember many years ago when you took an online writing course that I was teaching. You had recently completed an MFA program and you shared the fact that your mom bought you the Stanford online course as a gift, because you were a bit adrift after finishing grad school and she thought you could use a class and a reminder to put your writing first. I remember that your writing was absolutely wonderful, and what a pleasure it was to get to read it and work with you as a student, but I don't think that this was the novel you were working on at that time. Can you talk about the trajectory of how Lights All Night Long came to be?
Lydia Fitzpatrick: I’d forgotten all about this, but yes! My mom gave me your course as a wonderfully nudging Christmas present. At the time, I’d written a short story about a teenage girl, Sadie, and I had this sense of unfinished business with her and her world. I wanted to write a novel about her, but each time I tried, I seemed to run out of steam around the hundred-page mark. I’d told my mom this, and she thought a little external guidance might be helpful, and signed me up for a Stanford online course. I think I workshopped one in that long series of abandoned beginnings with you—in it Sadie shared the narrative with a worker on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig — but soon after the course ended, I wrote another version that had legs. In it, Sadie met Ilya, a visiting Russian student, and was smitten. I was smitten too, and I started digging into his backstory to figure out why, and that was when Ilya began to eclipse Sadie’s role as protagonist and the novel in its current, recognizable form began to take shape.
MW: Because I follow you on social media, I am lucky to have gotten to watch you with two of the cutest babies I have ever seen. Your daughters are still very young, and close in age. Can you talk a little bit about how you find time to write in addition to raising children? What does a typical day look like for you — if there is such a thing?I really liked your use of second person, because it felt fresh, and I loved how you used it in a specific and unique way. Sometimes "you" is the husband and sometimes the little girl, yet I never felt confused. Was that a choice you knew you were going to make from the start? Or was it something that emerged and felt right as you were discovering the story?
LF: I’m so glad you asked this. Since the Lauren Groff interview in The Harvard Gazette, in which she said she wouldn’t answer this question until a man had been asked it, I think there’s been a general hesitation to pose the question. And while I certainly understand her reaction to it, to the sexism with which it can be asked, I wonder if focusing on the sexism of the question doesn’t in some way obscure the greater goal, which is gender parity in the writing profession. The audience who needs the answer to this question is overwhelmingly female. Women who are trying to do both—to parent and to write. So in the hopes that someone who fits that description is reading this, I’ll try to answer it as honestly and pragmatically as I can. Plus I’ve read interviews in which men have been asked the question, so hopefully I’m not in any way betraying my deep and abiding love for Lauren Groff!
When my daughters were little, I wrote and taught during their naps and during a three-hour stretch from 9 am to noon while a very patient neighbor watched them. Every single hour of writing cost $15, and there is nothing like knowing the monetary cost of every word you write — yes, I did that math daily — to motivate. I know this pressure is probably paralyzing to some, but it helped me to become a more efficient writer. Then, from 2:30 on, I parented — in body at least; my mind often strayed to the novel. Now both of my girls are in school, so I have seven hours completely free to write each day, and it feels incredibly luxurious.
MW: Knowing that your novel prominently features Russian characters, who also happen to be two brothers, I am very curious as to what kind of research went into writing it and capturing those points of view in an authentic way. Do you typically write fiction that is pretty far outside of your own personal experience? What inspires you as a writer?
LF: I love the imaginative leaps that only fiction allows. There is a thrill in trying to see the world—to experience it—as someone else. But with those leaps comes the risk of not getting it right. To minimize that risk, I did a lot of research on Russia during the years in which the novel is set. I traveled there, and I read political and economic histories, memoirs, articles, and oral histories. It’s also key to have an emotional point of contact with a character. With Ilya, the novel’s protagonist, this is a bit of a “chicken or the egg” debate. I’m not sure if his character arose from a subconscious emotional point of contact, if that is why I was so drawn to him, or if I created him and then found a way to connect him to my own emotional experience as a way of pulling him closer.
Melanie Bishop is the author of the young adult novel My So-Called Ruined Life and will teach the Stanford Continuing Studies course “Writing the ‘Modern Love’ Essay” in Summer 2019. Her own “Modern Love” essay, “I Would Have Driven Her Anywhere,” was published in The New York Times in November 2018.
Melanie recently spoke with Tom Kealey, Jones Lecturer in Creative Writing and On-Campus Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator for Stanford Continuing Studies.
Tom Kealey: Melanie, your “Modern Love” essay begins, “When my mother was booted from an assisted living facility in North Carolina for being ‘too high maintenance,’ my husband Ted and I agreed to have her live near us in Prescott, Arizona.” You explore your relationship with your mother during this time, and among other things, both of your connections to a 1992 Honda Accord and all of the small items found in its glove compartment and under the seats. Can you tell us about your original idea for the essay and how it came to be in its final form?
Melanie Bishop: The bit that ended up published in “Modern Love” was originally part of a much longer essay about my mother, titled “Final Instructions for Princesses.” I started it during a month-long residency at Djerassi1 in spring of 2016 and finished a draft in the spring of 2018, holed up in a studio at Arcosanti2. It was long and unwieldy, and I knew it needed more pruning than I’d already done, but I was too close to the material to do the necessary cutting. So I hired an excellent editor, Dawn Raffel. Her comments were enormously helpful, and one thing she said was, “I feel like the mother/daughter car wants to be an essay of its own.”
It’s a braided essay, so the car story was one of several stories that were being told in turn, in pieces, within the frame of the longer essay. In extricating all those sections, and turning them into a separate short essay, I then had to mend the holes where I’d plucked content, work on new transitions, and then find the form and the opening and the structure for the new essay. But her comment was brilliant, and I never would’ve come to it on my own. Eureka, of course it’s a separate, self-contained essay, and of such a publishable length! I sent it to “Modern Love” and received an auto-reply saying they wouldn’t be accepting submissions again until September 1. Fortunately, it was August 25, so not a long wait before I could resubmit. I received the acceptance email from the series editor, Dan Jones, on October 26, went through a few rounds of revision with him, and the essay appeared in The New York Times on November 18. All happened very quickly.
TK: Many readers of your essay had a strong emotional reaction to your story, and a number of them reached out to you online.3 Could you talk about those interactions?
MB: There’s a loneliness to caring for someone with dementia. It’s hard and repetitive and relentless. Often the loved ones are unrecognizable as the mother/father/grandmother/spouse they once were. And you miss deeply the person you knew. Yet here is this new version of them, needing you more than ever. And you struggle. And there’s a lot of exhaustion and guilt, difficulty and sorrow. In my experience, there weren’t many opportunities for fellowship or community around the experience. What happened I think, is this essay in “Modern Love” created, briefly, that missing community. So many people who wrote me had endured similar or worse scenarios; many were living through them currently. It was like a club we’d all secretly belonged to, thinking we were its sole member, and then found out there were all these others in the club! It was a party among us; the correspondence was candid and deep, a level of intimacy inherent in the shared experience. I wrote back to every person who wrote me. I still occasionally get a letter from someone who’s just stumbled upon the essay from the archives.
These numbers and this camaraderie shouldn’t have surprised me, but they did. Not only were there similar stories of loved ones made difficult by their disease, but also a dozen or so people even had stories, like mine, about an old car, rickety and beloved, a symbol of both the loved one and their decline. In my case, after my mother died, I was loath to get rid of the car. I was incapable. That sentiment is at the core of my essay.
TK: Your Stanford Continuing Studies course in Summer 2019 will aim to help students write “Modern Love”–style personal essays of their own. Can you tell us a little about the course?
MB: The course takes place on two consecutive Saturdays in July. We’ll spend the first day reading, discussing, and analyzing what makes an essay right for “Modern Love.” Numerous examples will show us the range of topics that have been covered in the column over its nearly fifteen years. As evidenced by my own essay about my mother, the column isn’t limited to romantic love. Many have written about parents, children, and platonic relationships, about heartbreak, divorce, and death. Once we’ve studied the column, we’ll do exercises to uncover our own material, and generate lists of possible topics. Before leaving the first day, students will have made a start on an essay, which they will develop over the next week. The second Saturday will be for sharing the drafts-in-progress and offering encouragement and feedback.
I want to teach this course because my own experience of publishing in the column was so exciting, and unlike any other I’ve had as a writer. When my young adult novel was published, it was maybe read by a thousand people. It had good reviews in Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly. Over a period of about a year, I received maybe a dozen fan letters and maybe fifty very positive reader reviews. The book was a top-five finalist in two reputable contests. For comparison, within a week of my “Modern Love” essay coming out, hundreds of thousands had read it, it had been translated to other languages, I had thousands of hits to my website, about sixty letters from readers, an invitation to do a radio spot, and a tweet from the deputy editor of The New York Times Magazine, praising the essay. The reaction was off the charts and it was instantaneous. The road to book publication can be so long, a year and a half from acceptance to print, and, unless you're famous, or publishing with one of the “Big Five,” book release day/week/month can feel pretty anticlimactic. Not so the day your “Modern Love” essay goes live.
TK: It seems that the “Modern Love” genre encompasses many kinds of love, as well as many different perspectives about love. What beginning advice might you offer to a writer interested in exploring their own “Modern Love” essay?
MB: My advice is to take the course! All other advice delivered there!
TK: Can you tell us a little about the writing project you’re working on now?
MB: I’m working on a few things at once. I’m marketing the aforementioned long essay about my mother, “Final Instructions for Princesses.” At 20,000 words, it’s a difficult length to publish, but I’m persisting. The essay is organized around this notion of “instructions,” how to be female, and has relevance to #MeToo. A week ago, I finished and submitted the second YA novel in the Tate McCoy series, titled The Savior of Me. I just wrote a short essay called “The Virtual Dementia Tour,” about a training I underwent as a hospice volunteer. And I’m revising a very long short story (what is it with me and stuff that’s too LONG?) that is set on one of the Cycladic Islands in Greece. That story is titled “Eklepsi,” Greek for eclipse.
Writing is hard. Writers are inventors, taking nothing — the blank page or blank screen—and turning it into something that didn’t exist before that moment. I write despite the difficulty, but often I’m reluctant, having to drag myself to the page. Teaching, though, is my first love. I feel lucky to share with students my ongoing fascination with writing and literature. I’m thrilled to be offering this course for Stanford Continuing Studies.
2. Arcosanti: An Urban Laboratory, arcosanti.org↩
A Conversation with Lysley Tenorio
Lysley Tenorio will join the Stanford Fiction Writers in Conversation series on Thursday, May 9, at 7:30 pm in the Bechtel Conference Center, Encina Hall, on the Stanford campus. Lysley is the author of the story collection Monstress, and his stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Zoetrope: All-Story, The Best New American Voices, and The Pushcart Prize anthologies. He has received the Whiting Writer’s Award, the Edmund White Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. Lysley is a professor at St. Mary’s College, and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford.
For The Writer’s Spotlight, Lysley was interviewed by Tom Kealey, Jones Lecturer in Creative Writing and On-Campus Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator for Stanford Continuing Studies.
Tom Kealey: The book and title story of Monstress begins: “In 1966, the President of Cocoloco Pictures broke the news to us in English: ‘As the Americans say, “it is time to listen to the music. Your movies are shit.”’ He unrolled a poster for The Squid Children of Cebu, our latest picture for the studio. Our names were written in drippy, bloody letters: A Checkers Rosario Film was printed above the title, and my credit was at the bottom. Reva Gogo, it said, as the Squid Mother.” There’s so much here — humor, mystery, voice, rhythm, and especially tension. What are you trying to create for the reader in this opening, and for that matter, in any story opening?
Lysley Tenorio: Everything you mentioned, I’m definitely going for, at least for the title story. Humor, in particular, I hope, is clear in that opening; if readers can detect a hint of it, then they’ll be open to the emotional shades of the narrative, which is ultimately a sad love story but has undeniably ridiculous aspects, too.
Beyond the obvious hook that an opening should have (and “hook” is open to interpretation, of course), the thing I think is essential for any story opening is a sense of disturbance: not all is well, which is why the story is being told. That tension can be situational or rooted in character, or can even be evoked in the specific language of the opening line. However rendered or expressed, that sense of wrongness, of something being a little off its usual emotional axis, is elemental when opening a story.
TK: Pop culture is an important element of your stories and your focus as a writer. Films, music, television, celebrities, politics. Your characters stand a little in awe of pop culture, but they also have this tension with it or against it. How do you go about weaving these elements into a story?
LT: Loving pop culture — American pop culture in particular — feels very Filipino to me. (There’s a centuries-old backstory to the Filipino fascination with the West, rooted in colonialism and the intertwined histories of the Philippines and the US, but I won’t go into that.) Growing up, pop culture was a way of accessing a larger world when my own life felt rather small, tucked away — we were immigrants, and lived with the challenges inherent to that life. The fascination with pop culture feels integral to my characters, whose lives, while vastly different from my own, feel emotionally familiar, so pop culture’s presence on the page feels organic in these stories, even inevitable. That said, it’s important to deal with pop culture in any piece of fiction with a delicate and strategic hand: if your characters are going to beat up The Beatles, you’d better be sure to get The Beatles right, especially in the dramatic and thematic context of the work. Pop culture should lend itself to — but not become — the story.
TK: As I was re-reading Monstress, it occurred to me that “respect” was a theme that kept emerging — for not only the many characters who are seeking (often elusively) to claim it, but also the many characters who are seeking to give it. How do these desires help drive your characters or stories?
LT: This question is super interesting to me. I’d never thought about the idea of respect in the context of these stories, but now that you mention it, I totally see it. In “Felix Starro,” for example, Papa Felix gives sick, even dying people false hope, for cash — pretty reprehensible. But he believes it’s the only way to provide for his grandson, so those intentions, in his eyes anyway, deserve respect. Felix Jr., the narrator, recognizes that, and even though he’s (sort of) morally opposed to their scams, he can’t deny all that his grandfather has done for him. The external drama of the story is built around that tension, and the same is true for other characters in the collection as well. In “Monstress,” Checkers thinks his caveman-horror movies truly have artistic merit and deserve respect from the woman he loves; in “Superassassin,” the narrator believes his vigilantism is morally correct, and that the world should abide by his own code of justice.
TK: Writing a first draft varies greatly from writer to writer. Some authors create little more than an outline, some a near-finished product, and others more of a collage of ideas and images. Could you tell us about your first-draft process, and maybe a little about the jump you try to make to the second draft?
LT: The first draft is slow and painful, full of doubt and nonstop self-editing. But if I believe in the story, or even just the idea of the story, I’ll force myself to get to the end. From there, it’s a rewrite from the very first word. I’m a firm believer that if you change one word, then you need to reconsider the entire sentence, then the entire paragraph, then the entire scene, all in the context of language and forward movement. It’s the same process for the third draft, then the fourth, then the fifth… I don’t really recommend it, but it’s the only way I know how to write. Which is a reminder that writing does not come naturally to me at all, and is really hard and often unenjoyable work, yet for some reason I’m compelled to do it. Some of the time, anyway.
TK: In a perfect world for writers, the story we’re most interested in is the one we’re working on now. What writing project are you working on currently, and how did it come about?
LT: I’m working on a novel. In the earliest drafts, it was about some guys trying to assassinate a pair of sniffer dogs; now it’s about a guy who wears a sloth costume at work and whose mother is an internet con artist. It’s supposed to be out in the world in 2020, right before the election, so as you can imagine, it’ll be a very relaxed and peaceful time for me.
Beloved Stanford Continuing Studies Online Creative Writing instructor Rachel Howard has a lot to celebrate. Her new novel, The Risk of Us, is being published on April 9, and her wonderful essay on Lent was published on March 12 in The New York Times Magazine “Letter of Recommendation” column.
Rachel has taught memoir writing, personal essay writing, and fiction for Continuing Studies, so she is familiar with these genres, their possibilities and limitations. She and I have both written novels with autobiographical components, so I was curious to talk to her about some of the choices behind her new book, as well as about how her teaching helps to inform her writing.
Malena Watrous, Online Writing Lead Instructor
Malena Watrous: I loved your memoir about your father's death, as well as your new novel. It's interesting to me that your second book has the same introspection and sensitivity to language as the first, but is a novel rather than a memoir, even though the character seems based on you (she too wrote a memoir about losing her father in the way that you lost yours, and also moved with her husband to Nevada City, California, and adopted a child). Why did you choose to shift from memoir to fiction and what do you feel that the change in form let you get away with, or prevented you from doing?
Rachel Howard: I love this question. Thinking about the differences between nonfiction and fiction, and the possibility of a space between, is so important in my writing life. Over the years, I’ve come to feel very strongly that fiction creates a different kind of space than nonfiction. I say this as someone who loves nonfiction as much as fiction, who wants to read both James Baldwin’s essays and his stories, for instance. I think the two different modes do different things. In fiction, you enter a world that creates its own internal reality. Whether the concrete details of the story correspond to documented reality should not matter. And this means that fiction makes a space that is more whole and self-contained.
It’s true that outside of the reality of the book, The Risk of Us is informed by some of my experiences, but I was really clear that The Risk of Us was fiction before I wrote a single word of it. Not just so that I could simplify, change details, and create more internal wholeness, but also because I think a different kind of conversation happens when you're drawn inside a world that has to hold together with its own internal reality, rather than appeal to the reader's knowledge that "this really happened." Another motivation: I wanted to make a space for readers to be in this tension and emotional complexity of trying to become a family, but I didn't want it to be about me. I hope that people won’t need to speculate on the details of my real life to discuss what happens in the book.
At the same time, it’s also true that I decided not to change certain details corresponding with the facts of my own life, for instance, my father was murdered when I was a young girl, and in The Risk of Us the narrator’s father was murdered. I was OK with the nonfiction/fiction ambiguity those details might create, even curious about the effect of that ambiguity. Sheila Heti writes novels that feature a main character named Sheila Heti, and people who share the same names and characteristics of her friends, but if you read about her writing process you will find that assuming all the events in those books really transpired is a mistake. I was emboldened by that discovery. I've long been inspired by writers who welcome this kind of fiction/nonfiction ambiguity: Marguerite Duras, Jean Rhys, you could even say Grace Paley. Leonard Michaels’s novel Sylvia. And recently, Rachel Cusk and the newly popularized work of Lucia Berlin. Those influences made the choice of fiction even more decisive for me.
As for what I could “get away with” or not, I didn’t think of it that way. I feel that I’m in a different mode of communication with the reader when I write memoir and essays, and I’m working on another memoir now. Memoir is a great choice when you want to rethink, openly, things that really happened, or pay tribute to people who really existed, or engage debate on historical events.
MW: I really liked your use of second person, because it felt fresh, and I loved how you used it in a specific and unique way. Sometimes "you" is the husband and sometimes the little girl, yet I never felt confused. Was that a choice you knew you were going to make from the start? Or was it something that emerged and felt right as you were discovering the story?
RH: Thank you so much. That specific kind of second person was key to how the voice of the novel emerged. It was in large part influenced by Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which I read about four times while I wrote The Risk of Us. In that book the narrator starts in the second person, speaking to her husband, and after she learns he’s cheated on her, the voice shifts to the third person, the woman referring to herself as “she,” which reflects the self-distancing of shock. No doubt influenced by this, one day I imagined the narrator of The Risk of Us speaking the story to the husband, and the voice was there. I then realized I could use point of view thematically the way Offill had: the narrator is first speaking to her husband, and in the next chapter speaking to her daughter, and as the novel ramps toward its turning point, trying to figure out how to speak to both of them at once. So the question for the narrator is how to move from me and you, and you to us. The mode of address enacts that.
This did create some challenges. I had to make it clear to the reader which you the wife was addressing. So I started calling the daughter “Little One” and the husband “Daddy.” And I did have to stick by the choice of this point of view and just have the guts to make it work. I took the first two chapters to a writers conference and the feedback from the workshop leader was kind of saying, “Whoa, this is a complicated POV, are you sure you want to do this?” And I had to swallow and say, yep, I’m going to do it this way.
MW: I feel that as writers and teachers, one activity informs the other, in both directions. What have you learned from teaching writing that informs your own creative process? And what about writing your books would you like to bring back to share with your students? Now that you've finished both a memoir and a novel, is there anything you wish you'd "known then" (aka when you started) that would have made the process any easier?
RH: Completely agree! I love the way teaching informs my own process and I feel so fortunate to continuously learn from the brilliant new insights my Stanford Continuing Studies students bring to our readings. Teaching also forces me to try to articulate what I think is transpiring, imaginatively, between writer and reader on the page—and if I articulate this in a way that makes sense to students and also helps them make some exciting shifts in their own work, I know I’m on to something.
With The Risk of Us, the big discovery made in large part through teaching had to do with that you address, how it shifts the relationship among writer, narrator, and reader. We’re used to the narrator talking directly to the reader, but in this mode, the reader is eavesdropping, as it were, on a conversation between the narrator and someone else. So rather than being talked at, there’s a sense of overhearing an intimate exchange. And that gives the reader a little more space to be curious and to connect dots for herself, a little less pressure to feel meaning is being pushed on her. The students and I discovered this together, in our readings and in their weekly writing assignments, where I started having them try addressing their work to someone specifically imagined who was not the reader.
As for what I wish I’d known starting out, I wish I’d had in hand two craft articles that have been revelatory for me. One is “The Author-Narrator-Character Merge” (that’s not a good thing, by the way!) by Frederick Reiken, who was a close mentor of mine when I was in the Warren Wilson MFA program. Another is “What We Talk About When We Talk About Theme,” by Eileen Pollack, which I happened to spot about a decade ago in The Writer’s Chronicle. The latter article, which suggests that writers try to identify a driving thematic question for each work (ring any bells with Chekhov’s famous writing advice?*), changed my process profoundly. I will be crediting Pollack’s article for any improvement I can hope to claim in my work until I die. I have shared that article with students almost continually since first reading it.
* Writing to his brother Alexander on May 10, 1888, Chekhov listed his six tenets of a great story:
1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature
2. Total objectivity
3. Truthful descriptions of persons and objects
4. Extreme brevity
5. Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype
This month, we are thrilled to spotlight the recent publication of The Half-Life of Everything, by Deborah Gang. Deborah was a student in an online novel writing course of mine several years ago. She was already hard at work on early draft material that eventually became this published book. The story blends contemporary realism with a speculative twist: it’s about a man who believes that he has essentially lost his wife to Alzheimer’s disease and falls in love with another woman—but once a drug restores his wife’s mental health, he has to figure out what to do next. It’s a terrific premise, wonderfully executed, with truly memorable characters. The novel is already receiving all kinds of praise and made the Michigan Bestseller List (Gang lives in the state). I highly recommend picking up a copy.Malena Watrous, Online Writing Lead Instructor
Malena Watrous: Congratulations on the publication of your novel! I’m thrilled to hear that it’s so well received. I remember your project well from when you were a student in my course. Specifically I remember a conversation when you seemed resistant to writing a sex scene between your characters that I felt needed to be on the page.
Deborah Gang: I came to realize that if you’re writing a love story, then you need to make decisions about sex. You can avoid it as I did in that earliest version, where I just did a ladylike fade-out for the ending of David and Jane’s first date. I still remember you saying, ”Oh no, you don’t get to do that. You have to write something. You don’t have to go all genitalia but you have to write something.”
MW: I don’t remember saying that exactly, but it sounds about right!
DG: Luckily, it was only this year that I read Anne Tyler’s 2012 interview in which she said, “I would never be in bed with my characters. I try to show them respect.” Anne Tyler has been a favorite writer of mine starting when I was in my twenties. When the publisher and I were getting ready to send the advance reading copy out to authors to ask for blurbs, I wanted to send her one even though she never does blurbs—by which I mean she is actively against the whole concept. Which, as a reader, I don’t agree with. My husband told me something I had no recollection of—that shortly after we met, in 1978, I gave him one of Tyler’s novels and kind of assigned it. Of course I put this anecdote in my letter to her. You can imagine my amazement when last March, I received a handwritten note from the Anne Tyler reminding me that she doesn’t do blurbs but saying that she wanted to tell me how much she liked my book—and what she liked about it. Even though I did get in bed with my characters!
MW: What was the hardest part about writing The Half-Life of Everything?
DG: The hardest part definitely was getting started. It’s one thing to have an idea, but that’s an ocean away from getting those first chapters on paper. It’s a frightening feeling to have basically no idea what words are going to show up on the page. I created some artificial deadlines for myself, and the online fiction-writing workshops that I took at Stanford provided real deadlines and great feedback from the instructors and the other writers. Later, if I would be away from the project for a length of time, it would be difficult to come back to the manuscript. I was worried I wouldn’t like the writing or the characters and I would have to force myself to enter their world again. Luckily, I became drawn in again each time—even though there were, of course, many things to improve.
MW: Well, I hope that your experiences with writing this wonderful book encourage lots of readers to grab a copy of it. Congratulations again!
I have known this month’s featured author, Jenn Stroud Rossmann, since she was a student in a novel-writing course that I taught nearly a decade ago. When she got in touch to let me know that the book she’d worked on in that course had been published to great acclaim, I was excited but hardly surprised. I still remembered her honest and funny writing about Silicon Valley.
The novel-writing journey differs for everyone. It can take one year or fifteen to finish a book, and the book can come out linearly or in a patchwork of scenes that need quilting together. In addition to creativity, one quality that is absolutely required is tenacity: a refusal to let the “problem” go until it’s solved. That’s a quality that Jenn has in abundance, in addition to creativity and wit. This book may have taken many years to produce, but those years were well spent, and for the reader, it’s worth the wait. In this month’s Writer’s Spotlight, Jenn talks about the particular journey leading to the completion of The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh, which Kirkus Reviews called “a thoughtful, caring examination of race, class, and wealth in America.”Malena Watrous
Online Writing Lead Instructor
Jenn Stroud Rossmann:
I began this novel just after the dot-com bubble burst: it’s set in 2002 Silicon Valley. But by 2011, I was still working to find its ideal structure and the right number of point-of-view characters. Whose story was it, really? The dotcom mogul’s neglected wife, who’d been there in the startup days but had been slowly edged out? The ad guy whose ironic, self-aware ads had helped the dotcoms prosper, but whose client list had just imploded? The Stanford physics professor whose students had dropped out to join startups? Or the fourteen-year-old black adopted son of “well-meaning but nevertheless white” parents? Was it even going to be possible to tell all these stories in the same book?
Residential workshops played a significant role in my ability to develop my craft and my community of writers, and to take my “hobby” seriously. I also was fortunate to have had a strong writing group in graduate school, but that group had become geographically far-flung, with interfering day jobs. Life doesn’t always permit the luxury of a workshop or residency far afield. I’ve wrestled with the “balancing act” (a generous euphemism) of writing fiction while maintaining a full-time job and trying to spend time with my family. Then suddenly, in the midst of a busy academic year, my in-laws gifted/nudged me with a registration in Stanford’s Online Creative Writing program. They registered me for the second of three novel-writing classes taught by Malena Watrous: “The Adventurous Middle.”
Having assignments and accountability was an enormous motivator. I treasured Malena’s weekly “lecture” posts that guided our reading and writing. I threw myself into critiques of my classmates’ submissions, and into my own writing assignments. And perhaps most magical of all were the scheduled weekly “office hours” of discussion and Q&A, when I was assigned to engage in conversation about craft and critique. Phone consults with Malena about my work extended these discussions and made me feel my project might be worth the effort.
When I signed up for the third course, “The Art of Plot,” I was well aware that I was a writer for whom characters took precedence, with plot emerging only after pages (chapters!) of situational, character-developing writing. Several of my classmates were working on mysteries and more plot-driven projects; I was self-conscious about the slow momentum in some of my polished but plotless sections of writing, and began to restructure my novel.
By the time that course had ended, I’d made progress on my own project and also become invested in the works in progress of my classmates. I think it was during one of those online office hours that a few of us embraced the idea of continuing to read and critique each others’ work. We started a private blog on which each week one of us would post 750 words; the rest of us would post our responses. Each of us had occasions when we spent the first paragraph of our critique apologizing for taking so long, but we did catch up when we’d fallen behind. We discussed what we were reading, and took turns managing the blog. It has been a gift to have thoughtful, sophisticated readers taking your 750 words seriously. That community has been thriving for several years since we “met” at Stanford.
Read more about how Jenn Stroud Rossmann has navigated the world of writing:https://davidabramsbooks.blogspot.com/2018/10/my-first-time-jenn-stroud-rossmann.html
This month, we are excited to spotlight the publication of a personal essay by Judith Wagner, who wrote a draft of this essay while a student in “The Creative Habit, Part B” course. Judith was such an asset to that course, as someone who had a lot of experience writing but not in creative writing, and who took to the habit like a fish to water. Below, Judith discusses how she decided to take the course and submit her essay for publication, as well as the process of working with an editor to arrive at the finished version now in print.
Visit stanfordmag.org/essays to read Judith's story, "How Three Women Scientists Gave One Another a Boost—Without Even Realizing It."
Malena Watrous, Online Writing Lead Instructor
Writing—lab procedures, recommendations, evaluations—was always part of my work as a biology teacher. For a time I also wrote itineraries for a nature travel company and environmental assessments for a consulting firm. And I’d published a few research papers, based on my graduate work, in professional journals. But until I stopped teaching and time opened up in front of me, I had never written my own stories. I like the sense of producing something that might be lasting, that others might enjoy. Perhaps, as I’ve joked about teaching, it’s another way for me to talk so others will listen.
I wrote this essay in 2017 with Stanford magazine in mind. In Spring 2018, looking for a way to structure my writing, I signed up for “The Creative Habit, Part B,” with Malena Watrous. Encouraged by positive responses to my writing, I sent a second inquiry to the magazine, this time with my essay attached, and they were interested. But my draft was too long, so the magazine’s editors revised it for length and style. (That was something new for me: to have a piece with my name on it edited by someone else.) We went back and forth a few times. My suggestions were accepted, and their fact-checking caught an error. (I’d said that in 1977 Stanford had no women biology professors; I’d forgotten about Hopkins Marine Station, and Isabella Abbott deserves to be remembered.) What at first I was afraid would no longer “sound like me” has come to be something I’m happy to see in print with my name on it. It’s a good story; I’m glad to have the chance to share it with a wider world.
This month, we are delighted to spotlight 166 Palms, a literary anthology conceived of, created by, and published by students who have completed novels in the Stanford Continuing Studies Online Writing Certificate Program in Novel Writing. These students wanted to showcase some of the fine fiction they’d read by their peers while in the program, so they set to work on an anthology that is now going into its third year of publication. While it was originally only open to submissions from students in the novel-writing certificate program, the journal is now expanding its criteria to accept submissions from any students in Stanford Continuing Studies writing courses. Please enjoy this interview with managing editor James Burnham, followed by submission guidelines for the next volume, which will come out in Summer of 2019.
Visit the 166 Palms website to learn more.
Online Writing Lead Instructor
Malena Watrous: Please tell us the story of how you came up with the idea for this literary anthology.
James Burnham: I had the idea to do a short story compilation while we were still students in the Online Writing Certificate program (OWC). Our cohort remained close after graduation in 2014, and we continued to share our writing and progress. In 2016, I reached out and asked if anyone was interested in contributing a story to an anthology. The idea was received with enthusiasm. So, I collected and edited the stories and compiled the first 166 Palms in 2017. It included nine writers who had completed their novels through OWC, and two faculty members.
MW: When did other students become involved in the editing process?
JB: The 2018 edition was more of a collaborative effort, with Linda Moore (a fellow student) serving as guest editor. While cruising around the world, she worked with authors to ready their stories for submission. She also helped with the new cover design, while Suanne Shafer (another fellow student) helped with copy editing. The 2018 edition showcased nine OWC students' short stories and three poems.
MW: What is the significance of the anthology's name?
JB: The title was inspired by the beautiful palm trees that line the entrance to the Stanford campus and the diverse nature of our cohorts. We are writers from all over the world and all walks of life who share a passion for the craft of storytelling. As I say in the foreword, it’s “an anthology to celebrate the unique voices of extraordinary writers, appropriately titled 166 Palms.”
MW: Tell us a little bit about the upcoming edition, for students who want to submit:
JB: It’s coming out in Summer 2019, and will be guest edited by Suanne Shafer. I will continue on as the managing editor and coordinate the submission process. We hope to include more writers associated with Stanford University's OWC program, and are also open to publishing pieces by students from other Continuing Studies writing courses as well. We also hope that these authors will want to participate in the production of future editions.
Submission details are as follows:
166 PALMS 2019 SUBMISSION REQUIREMENTS
- Submissions are open to all writers who have taken or are currently enrolled in Stanford University’s Continuing Studies writing classes
- Submissions are due by March 1, 2019
- Currently accepting fiction and poetry under 7,500 words
- Reprints and simultaneous submissions will be accepted
- Multiple submissions will be accepted
HOW TO SUBMIT
- Email your submission to firstname.lastname@example.org
- Attach submission to your email as a .doc, .docx, or .rtf
- The subject line should include the word “Submission”
- Indicate in the body of your email which writing course(s) you took in the Stanford Continuing Studies Program
- Add the above email address to your “Safe Senders” list
- Include your contact information in your email
Finally, here is an excerpt from a piece in the current (second) volume of the anthology:
IF NOT WORDS
I think of 1978 as my Kerouac period. Before that was my blustery Hemingway period, and afterward my disastrous Hunter S. Thompson period. But '78 was Kerouac, and in the spring I drifted out of college and began to dream of going on the road.
Of course, I needed a Neal Cassady—a running buddy like the mad ones that Kerouac famously shambled after and wrote about—“the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
That was what I needed. What I had was Pat Kelly.
I first met Pat in Lupoyoma City, a small poor town next to a big green lake three hours north of San Francisco. He was the new kid in eighth grade, from Texas by way of San Jose, with a junkie father locked up in San Quentin and his forty-five-ish mother shuttling drinks at the Weeping Willow Resort & Trailer Court. I won’t go into it here but, at the time, I was in a murky state of social exile myself due to a local scandal involving my family. What drew me to Pat was our shared status as temporary outsiders, and the fact that he was completely unimpressed by Lupoyoma gossip. That just wasn’t how he measured the world.
I met him because our American History teacher sentenced him to three swats for “cracking wise.” The teacher had a thick wooden paddle drilled with holes to reduce wind resistance. Pat rose from his back-row desk and said, “Now, how much history do you think I can learn from three swats?” He was taller and older than the rest of us. Straight blondish hair, parted down the middle and tucked behind jughandle ears. Tank top shirt and wide bellbottoms over black motorcycle boots, and his wallet on a silvery chain secured to a belt loop. He took long gangly strides to the front of the classroom, with his chin up and his shoulders back.
The teacher glowered. “Make it five then.”
Pat faced the class and grabbed his ankles. The teacher swung for the fences. Pat overacted a mockish “Ow!” with every blow, and the teacher tacked on another two swats—to zero effect on Pat’s demeanor. I had a front row desk, and after the final swing Pat straightened up and flashed his wide floppy grin right at me, then earnestly advised the teacher to watch the Jack LaLanne show. I laughed. Then the whole class laughed. The teacher pointed at the door and ordered both of us to the principal’s office. On the way out Pat paused at the threshold, looked back across the room and said, “Seven a.m., Channel 3,” with a big wink, and turned out the door. He had something I hadn’t seen before—an attitude or quality I admired, even coveted, but couldn’t name at first.
Visit the 166 Palms website to read more »
This month, we are pleased to spotlight the phenomenal new novel by long-time Stanford Continuing Studies instructor Sarah Stone. Hungry Ghost Theater was published by WTAW Press last month, and is a must-read for anyone who loves character-driven literary fiction written in gorgeous prose. Sarah is also the author of the novel The True Sources of the Nile, and the co-author, with her spouse and writing partner Ron Nyren (another of our beloved writing instructors), of the textbook Deepening Fiction: A Practical Guide for Intermediate and Advanced Writers. She has been teaching novel writing for us for many years, and this month she has generously shared a personal piece about her experience writing her most recent novel, and how it evolved over the years she spent working on it and getting to know her characters and their stories. Please enjoy her piece, join us in celebrating her publication, and check out her marvelous new book.
Online Writing Lead Instructor
Sarah Stone: Transforming the Agenda
Occasionally a novel will begin for a writer as a mysterious image or a line of dialogue: my first novel started with a fragment of a dream about a mother lying to her daughters. By the time I finished, it had turned into an attempt to understand the qualities in us that make genocide possible. My new novel, Hungry Ghost Theater, started as a short story about a couple who take a trip to Seoul (where I’d once lived for a year and a half) to rescue a sister having a breakdown. Over time, that sister became a daughter with a drug problem. I drew on family history, changing it substantially as I imagined these characters. The core issues, though, remain the same — denial, deception, self-deception, and self-awareness. Helping each other, hurting each other, fighting, and making up.
Slowly, the members of the family and some characters whose lives touch theirs developed their own interlocking stories, told in different modes and voices, set in theaters and psychiatric hospitals, in Korea, the San Francisco Bay Area, Zanzibar, and six different hells. The family members became performance artists, scientists, activists, and addicts — they had ideals and projects, loved each other, hurt each other and themselves, had to figure out ways out and through.
Along the way, the book started, for a while, to be about questions of free will and biology, the ways people use their power over each other, activism, and mythology. The ideas got out in front of the characters and story. This is something I see as a writing instructor too, from time to time, whether with the writers in Stanford’s Online Creative Writing and Certificate in Novel Writing programs or with graduate students in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Often if we care enough to write a novel about a subject, we may struggle with objectivity: our own passions and beliefs take over. We have had soul-searing experiences and want to work out their meaning, or we have issues we want to teach people about.
These kind of passions can be the engine that power the book. As we revise, though, we have to let the characters’ quirks, the unexpected turns of plot, and the images rise to the surface.
Recently, a radio interviewer asked me, “What do you want people to get from this novel?” Thinking this over, I realized that the novel had moved past the point where I had a specific agenda or anything to “say.” For me, Hungry Ghost Theater had become about Julia and Robert, who run an experimental theater company, and about their sister, Eva, a neuroscientist looking for the roots of empathy. It had become about Eva’s children, Katya, Jenny, and Arielle, all in some kind of trouble, and about Julia, Robert, and Eva’s parents, Philip and Lily, as they move into old old age. I wanted my readers to meet these people, to know them and witness their transformations, and perhaps to wrestle with some of the same questions the characters face.
One of the main roles of craft, then, is not just to create more skillful dialogue or a more engaging plot. We need to find ways to manage and transform our obsessions so that we’re creating an experience, allowing readers to have their own ideas and responses, rather than trying to direct their reactions or teach them a lesson. Instead, we’re using craft and the feedback from other writers in our workshops to find the nuances that turn our answers back into questions.
OCTOBER 2018On the weekend of October 19–20, students who have completed Stanford’s OWC (Online Writing Certificate) and finished writing a novel over the past year will come to campus to receive their certificates and participate in the festivities surrounding Litquake, the Bay Area’s two-week annual festival of literature and writing. Some of these certificate recipients will be doing a reading on campus at the Stanford Bookstore, while others will read at “Lit Crawl” in San Francisco, a one-night literary pub crawl that is the culmination of the Litquake festival. This month, we are spotlighting those upcoming readings, so that people who live in the area and would like to learn more about our program and our students’ work can enjoy listening to them read from their brand new books!
Here are some more specifics about the two upcoming events open to the public:
On Friday, October 19, from 9:30 am to 11:30 am, we will host a reading in the Stanford Bookstore, where any of our students who are in town to receive their certificates may read a four-minute excerpt from their novel. There’s a coffee shop inside the bookstore, so come grab a cup of joe and listen to some wonderful writing from novels that are finished but yet to hit the presses!
On Saturday evening from 5:00 pm to 6:00 pm, Continuing Studies will host a reading as part of Lit Crawl in San Francisco’s vibrant Mission District. During Lit Crawl, venues all over the Mission neighborhood open their doors to readings, and thousands of people meander up and down the streets, enjoying listening to authors share their work while sipping on cocktails. For many years now, we have hosted a reading during this literary pub crawl. This event has become a cherished OWC tradition, and we highly encourage you to come to the reading if you're in the area. Here is the address where it’s happening:
Latin American Club
3286 22nd St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
To read the bios of the Stanford authors who will read that night, please visit:
Online Writing Lead Instructor
This month, we are delighted to spotlight the upcoming publication of Ruth Hanford Morhard's book, Mrs. Morhard and the Boys, a nonfiction account of her husband's mother, the woman who started the very first boys’ baseball leagues. In a wonderful guest post, Ruth has generously shared a bit about the experience of discovering a family keepsake, deciding that she wanted to find out the story behind it, and then using what she learned in our Online Creative Writing courses to write this book. Before beginning the project, she had written other nonfiction. But she had little experience in creative writing and used our courses to help make this dream a reality. I know you'll enjoy the story of how this book came to be—and then you'll want to read about the remarkable woman who inspired it.
Online Writing Lead Instructor
Ruth Hanford Morhard:
I began my first Stanford online course with little more than an idea, a love of creative nonfiction, and an old steno pad, its cover long gone, the once-black ink on its thirty-some lined pages nearly faded into brittle, grayed paper—and tucked in the back, seven neatly typed sheets, aged to a bronze hue.
These pages were all I had of an unfinished autobiography written by Josephine Morhard, the feisty woman who started the first baseball leagues for young boys during the Great Depression. She wrote in longhand about her childhood and her struggles after leaving home when she was twelve. On the last of the typed sheets she wrote about being framed for a crime after she resisted her employer’s advances. She was still a teenager.
It was hardly enough for a book, but I forged ahead anyway. I started doing research. Then my daughter Trish, a librarian, told me Stanford was offering online writing courses. After taking one course, I decided to apply to the Online Certificate Program in Creative Nonfiction. It was the best decision I could have made.
I’ve worked in the public relations field for many years, and I’m good at writing that needs to be concise and to the point, writing that’s “just the facts.” Creative nonfiction requires the opposite—the detail that brings a scene to life. I needed to relearn how to write.
In the first courses, I was able to try my hand at poetry and fiction, a perfect way to gain the descriptive skills I needed. Then it was on to creative nonfiction, shaping the book, and the one-on-one instruction—all with exceptionally gifted instructors and classmates. I began to believe Mrs. Morhard’s few pages could be the foundation of a book.
By the time I was finished I had the bones of a biography. My one-on-one instructor, Otis Haschemeyer, thought it could be more. One of his comments sticks in my mind: “A life is not a story.” I struggled with that, but he was right. I’d written down everything I’d found out about her in chronological order. There was plenty of detail but little incentive for the reader to keep turning the pages. I needed to cut and paste, to add and subtract.
Not long after finishing the program, I took another course, “Creative Nonfiction: Craft a Proposal That Works.” The writing was only part of the equation, albeit the most important part. If I wanted anyone to read the book, I needed to navigate the increasingly confusing world of book publishing.
After finishing this course, I had the tools to approach a literary agent - a query letter, book proposal, and writing sample. In November 2017, I sent query letters to the five agents I most wanted to represent me, certain they’d all reject me, and I’d need to go on to the next batch and the next and the next. Surprisingly, three responded. Within the week, I had an agent.In February 2019 Citadel Press will publish my book, Mrs. Morhard and the Boys. The first line of my cover bio appropriately mentions the Stanford Certificate program. I know there would be no book without it. I am indebted to course instructors Faith Adiele and Anne Zimmerman, one-on-one instructor Otis Haschemeyer, proposal course leader Rachel Howard, and the Stanford online writing community.
This month we spotlight the success of Elaine Ray (pictured to the left), who recently completed the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing. Elaine has been working at Stanford for decades, but is about to leave California and Stanford for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, entering its MFA program in fiction writing on a full Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award fellowship. I have been a fan of Elaine’s fiction since I first had the pleasure of hearing her read from her novel in progress at Litcrawl.
Malena Watrous, Online Writing Lead Instructor
[Photo credit: Linda A. Cicero]
Malena Watrous: Can you tell us a little bit about why you decided to apply for MFA programs after finishing the certificate program here at Stanford? Why do you feel like this is the right move at this stage in your life?
Elaine Ray: For me, it was now or never. I'm sixty-three years old.
I had considered an MFA before I started the certificate program. I've had spreadsheets for years that listed the best programs, their locations, their costs, and whether a GRE was required. But financial security was really important to me. I wasn't quite ready to leave my full-time job. I also knew that low-residency programs would also be hard to balance with a fifty- to sixty-hours-a-week job.
The OWC was a perfect way to immerse myself in the study of the craft of fiction writing and also to be in an international community of writers without leaving my job. The program gave me an opportunity to study with extremely talented, accomplished writers, teachers, and scholars. I also learned a lot about being a discerning reader and developed good writing habits. After I completed the certificate program, I continued to maintain the practice of writing and even had my first short story published. But I missed being in a community of writers and I missed having deadlines.
MW: You are, in my opinion, such a wonderful writer. But one thing that impresses me about you, in addition to your inherent talent, is your ongoing commitment to learning and growing as a writer, and your willingness to keep investing yourself in new programs or courses in order to keep improving your already marvelous novel. Since by now you know a lot about the craft of fiction writing and novel writing in particular, what do you feel you get out of new courses and teachers, and do you have a sense of what you still want to learn or do you feel like that's something you discover in the process and can't guess at beforehand?
ER: Any kind of artistic pursuit requires continued focus and practice. I look forward to being in an intense community of writers and teachers again. What I'm most looking forward to at the Iowa Writers' Workshop is that fiction writing will be my job. I won't be distracted or diverted by emails from my office at ten at night. Working on my novel will no longer be the thing I squeeze into the wee hours of the morning before I go to work, or on weekends or vacations. It will be what I do forty, fifty, sixty hours a week. The blessing of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Graduate Fellowship is that I won't have to teach the first year at Iowa, so writing really will be my job.
As for writing, I think getting inside characters' heads comes fairly naturally and getting facts right has been ingrained in me from my work as a journalist, but creating exterior settings—what things look like, smell like, etc.—is something I still need to work on. I'll be taking a poetry seminar from Robert Hass in the fall and another seminar devoted just to sentences and paragraphs.
MW: For readers who might not have taken writing courses yet, or only one or two, can you share any particular nuggets of wisdom you might have gleaned as a result of your ongoing education as a writer, either from instructors or fellow students or just things you observed or picked up along the way?
ER: Keep readers in the “dream.” Make sure that transitions in time and place are smooth enough that readers are not distracted by trying to figure out where they are. Avoid cliches. Challenge your characters to do things that are outrageous. Take a sentence or a paragraph and expand it two or threefold; then take a sentence or paragraph and condense it to its most bare form.
MW: What is your own writing process and practice like, especially when you're trying to balance writing with a full-time job? Are you a morning writer? Night? Every day? Occasional? Do you keep a notebook? Is there any beverage that you must have in order to fuel you?
ER: For several years, particularly while I was in the OWC, I sequestered myself on weekends. The nice thing was that friends and family began to acknowledge that I had a commitment to writing. I spend a lot of time either at home in my pajamas or in the public library. I have a rule that I only pay for coffee when I'm there to write. On weekday mornings, starting at 5:30 or 6 a.m., I alternate between exercising and writing. When I do write in the morning, I meditate for five minutes, free write in a journal for five minutes, then write for at least an hour.
MW: Any great recent book recommendations?
ER: I just read The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng, with a book group I'm in. Even though it was shortlisted for a Man Booker Prize in 2012, I couldn't decide whether I loved it or not, but it has given me so much to think about in terms of story structure, setting, language, and emotion. I finished it and then started reading it again.I love Jesmyn Ward's novels—Sing, Unburied, Sing and Salvage the Bones. She packs so much emotional power and history into her novels. I started reading An American Marriage by Tayari Jones at a friend's house and it was gripping from the very beginning, but I had to leave the book there because it wasn't mine. I can't wait to read the rest of it. I also enjoyed audiobooks of Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.
This month we celebrate with Brendan Jones, one of our beloved Online Creative Writing instructors, who has received a Fulbright grant to write and research his next novel in Russia. Brendan’s wonderful first novel The Alaskan Laundry is set in Alaska, where he lives and from where he teaches. When not writing, reading, or teaching, he can often be found fishing and hunting, sometimes with his two young children. He leads such an interesting and adventure-filled life that we wanted to profile him, not only so that we could cheer on his recent success but also to find out more about his fascinating existence up in the very far north.
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Malena Watrous: Tell us a little bit about your fiction writing, and your plans for using this Fulbright to research your next novel.
Brendan Jones: I’ve been working on The Wreckage for the past year, the story around the sinking of the three-masted Russian schooner Neva in 1813 off the coast of Sitka, Alaska. It’s a remarkable tale of superstition and survival, of twenty-eight survivors fashioning fish hooks from copper spikes salvaged from the hull. Of the Russian fur-traders making contact with the Tlingit nation, and the other way around.
The remains of the survivors’ camp on Kruzof Island—just across Sitka Sound from where I live—were discovered in 2012. It’s been a deep and abiding pleasure to imagine snowy days in January 1813 while these folks did their best to subsist off the wreckage of the Neva, as it dawns on them that they’re surrounded by a rainforest that has offered the means of a comfortable survival to the Tlingit Nation for ten thousand years.
Irkutsk, where I will be stationed in Russia, is the capital of Siberia, as well as the town where the Russian-American Company originated. Along with some teaching at the university, I’ll comb the public archives for details of the Russian-American Company’s inception, along with how it developed into an extreme and often overlooked force in the (very recent) history of the Great Land.
MW: How long have you been living in Alaska? How did you first get interested in that area and in Russia? Did your interest in the area bring you there, or did you move there and then start learning things about it that made you want to set fiction there?
BJ: I first came to Alaska in the fall of 1997, to work in commercial fishing, and to make money for college. My aunt had worked in Sitka, teaching, and she had contacts on the island.
As the former capital of Russian America, Sitka made sense, both for my aunt and me. My grandmother—her mother—was born in Russia, and my great-grandparents (I’m named after my great-grandfather Isaac) spoke hardly any English. My interest in my own Russian heritage dovetailed into my love of the woods and outdoors. My great-grandfather, as the story goes, drove herds of horses between Ukraine and Siberia. As far as the fiction goes, the poet Robert Hass has said that Alaska, and much of the Pacific Northwest, has “yet to be imagined.” While this is untrue—Tlingit and Haida tribes have been “imagining” the land for millennia—it is true that contemporary fiction has yet to take hold in Alaska. The story of the Neva is just one example of so many good stories floating around the rainforest, so lush in its moss and ice and muskeg and rock.
I’ll also add that I see myself as working in the genre of “cli-fi,” fiction interested in climate change and our shifting environment. Alaska, which experiences global warming at twice the rate of the rest of the country, strikes me as the front line of this battle, as villages are forced to move inland due to rising seas, glaciers are melting, and there are spikes in bear attacks when warm waters dwindle the salmon runs. Though it’s tragic to witness firsthand, I do consider this to be one of the jobs of the writer: to bear witness, and to report back in a lively and imaginative manner on what we’ve done—and continue to do—to the earth, where we live.
MW: Tell us about the challenges of teaching online while living and working in such a remote place.
BJ: Well, on the most basic level, there’s the time difference. This quarter I have two students in China, one in Mexico, a few on the East Coast, and one in Nuremberg. Someone always ends up biting the bullet and joining at one in the morning. Sorry, Juli.
On the other hand, what a pleasure to be able to work across great distances, and share our respective projects—stories of dance halls in Shanghai, a frustrated lawyer in West Virginia, soldiers in Vietnam. While I generally consider myself a Luddite, even anti-technology, it’s been such a deep joy working with Stanford students around the globe, either connecting on the level of writing about the wild in my essay course, or working on fiction projects in the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing.
I’ll also say that, living on a remote Alaska island through the dark winter when all it ever seems to ever do is rain and get even darker, having a group of others to talk through the largely solitary work we do is only a good thing.
MW: What is your craziest or most exciting story from your time in the far north?
BJ: Oh geez, these are stories that come out after a few fingers of whiskey at some roadhouse. Each story separated by long, considerate pauses, before another braids onto the last.
I’ve eaten my share of bear meat, to quote the great writer Primo Levi. Dealt with boats sinking, boats up on the rocks, enough really to last me a lifetime, to be honest. I might dodge and tell you instead my favorite story of a friend who was stranded up in the interior with his buddy when their boat foundered on the mighty Yukon River. Something happened to their canoe, I don’t recall what—they hit a rock and tore a hole, or some such. It was toward the end of summer, growing colder, when they found themselves stranded, fifteen miles north of the nearest village, with a dwindling food supply.
They were worrying over their next move when my friend’s buddy, who had been raised in a leper colony, spotted a brace of ducks floating in the eddies on the other side of the river. We’re saved, he announced. Then this dude set to fashioning a series of slip knots using fishing line. He took the ends of the lines and fastened them to an alder branch. Then he stripped down, and, without another word, dove into the swift Yukon, managing to swim to the opposite bank. With each of the ducks yoked up, he then rose from the river, and began slapping the surface with a stick.
When ducks are frightened they fly downriver. And so it was with these ducks. Except this time, as they rose into the sky they took this man with them, lofting him into the air, and—as the story goes—flying him fifteen miles downriver, where he eventually found help.
A footnote to this wonderful story: my friend said an aeronautics engineer calculated the load for the ducks, factoring in the weight a single duck could carry, multiplied it a hundredfold, and admitted that, yes, this very well could have happened.
As I said: Alaska is a great place for stories.
This June, we are excited to celebrate the recent success of HJ Brennan (Jim), whose novel, Fathers' Day,was published in March 2018 and has been recognized as a finalist in the Indie Book Awards from an international field of nearly 5,000 entries. Jim workshopped Fathers' Day while he was a student in the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing, but he actually finished two novels during the two-year program.
Jim Brennan always led a rich artistic life, having grown up in a small Pennsylvania town where he studied art and writing, and played the trumpet. He attributes his colorful character studies to his years dabbling in a multitude of jobs, including mental-ward orderly, bartender, barn builder, three years in the Marines, middle school teacher, art director, copywriter, and newspaper promotions director. Brennan’s writing is beautiful and a lot of fun to read, and I highly recommend picking up a copy of Fathers' Day. Following is an excerpt from the book.
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It was supposed to be Christmas. Francis Danuta sat on the raw wood floor, his legs extended with his back against the bed. Sneakers. Rotten sneakers. Who wore sneakers in the winter? He did. Francis Danuta, whose bastard of a dad was dead. Francis Danuta, only son of Isabel Danuta and only brother of Kathy Ann Danuta of Southern Avenue and member of the graduating class of 2001 who would never graduate and never marry and who stomped dirty, rotted sneakers through sidewalk slush wherever it was he thought he was going all winter long while anyone in their right mind was wearing those really warm—And waterproof!—boots from the sporting goods store that had all that cool stuff like baseballs and Barry Bonds signature gloves and tents and backpacks and hunting gear and fishing gear and bone-handled knives, and he could go in there and take just about one of everything—really cool stuff. That green canoe. Damn! It hung there from the ceiling waiting for someone like him—him and his Iroquois guide—to cut it down, slide it into the river and head out. Just him and—what’s his name? Hell, he didn’t know—Gray Feather. Yeah, him and Gray Feather and their boots and Woolrich shirts and Coleman stove and Buck knives. They’d fish and hunt their way along the inland waters south, like maybe to Florida and meet up with some Seminoles, and Gray Feather could understand them, and they’d trade tobacco for supplies and just live there in the Everglades by Disney World.
The house was quiet. His mom left with the neighbor, Mrs. Griggs, and he should have gone with her, but he was sick, and she was like on autopilot, and it was all official business and forms, and please sign here, and she talked in spurts like bullets, and his chills were back. Don’t say bullets. Besides, Mrs. Griggs made him crazy on a good day. But, she was a great neighbor and baking them a casserole and driving Mom to the hospital and all. They’d bring Kathy home tomorrow. God, she looked like shit.
What had he done?
What if he ran away? Somewhere like—Switzerland. They were neutral, right? Whatever that meant. He’d seen the pictures: hiking, skiing, eating and drinking at long wooden tables, and everybody was happy and rich. Like, everybody dressed for the snow and nobody—Nobody!—wore these fucking sneakers.
He’d been up all night and held it together pretty well until her pills kicked in, and his mom finally went to bed. She was talked out, and he was talked out, and they agreed to get some rest and deal with whatever comes next tomorrow. Lights off, he pulled her covers up to her chin, crossed the short hall to his room, closed the door and stood, hands at his sides in the screaming dark and waited for his insides to stop. They didn’t, and, until an hour ago, he’d been throwing up—mostly clear stuff—into the toilet.
Mom said he had to go to the service, and it was for her that they were going, “If for no other reason!” She kinda put her foot down about that one—really pissed and, “I don’t want to hear another thing, Francis! You’re going!” He couldn’t. She said it won’t be for another week—the service. Kathy might be able to go, by then, but he couldn’t. If he wasn’t sick that day—which he probably would be—he’d say he was. He wasn’t going, for sure.
This month we are thrilled to spotlight the recent publishing success of the talented Tatiana Harkiolakis. Tatiana, who lives and works as a journalist in Greece, has taken many online writing courses with the Online Creative Writing program, most recently food writing with Chaney Kwak, and has broken into new publications with several of the articles she generated in that course. We asked Tatiana to write a guest post about her trajectory as a writer and how this course helped her.
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Writing is present in all aspects of my life, and journalism has long been a career I wanted to pursue. As a journalist, my areas of focus are travel, food, and culture. I love learning about the world, especially through local cuisines and time-honored traditions. Currently, I write a monthly column on food and restaurants for an English-language publication based in Athens, Greece, where I live. As a Greek-American and long-time resident of Athens, I love learning about the epicurean side of my city.
I took my first Online Creative Writing course at Stanford Continuing Studies in Summer 2015, and have completed five courses since then. My most recent course was “Thought for Food: The Craft of Food Writing,” with Chaney Kwak. This course taught me not only how to approach food as a journalist, but also how to consider the ways that food has shaped the human experience, and how we, in turn, shape our food traditions as our societies become more globalized.
What really helped me learn and grow in this course was the guidance of Mr. Kwak. He knows how to offer both constructive criticism and words of support, and he challenges every student to reach their full potential. He shared his own wealth of knowledge about food writing, gleaned from years of writing for some of the best food and travel publications on the market today. He also offered invaluable professional advice of all kinds, from how to pursue freelance writing as a career to the nitty-gritty details of structuring your first pitch letter.
When we were learning how to pitch articles to publications, he provided us with a template for constructing a pitch letter that is short and pithy, and displays our skills as writers. Using this template, I constructed a pitch for a short article I had written as a course assignment, and emailed it off to “Gastro Obscura,” the recently launched food-and-drinks section of Atlas Obscura. Not only was my idea accepted, but also I was contracted for three more articles right on the spot! Here is the link to my first published “Gastro Obscura” article: atlasobscura.com/foods/santorini-tomatoes-greece. And the other three I was commissioned for: atlasobscura.com/foods/fried-octopus-ink-sacs-kalymnos, atlasobscura.com/foods/prickly-pear-sorbet, and atlasobscura.com/foods/snake-wine-china-vietnam.
I plan to continue pitching articles and building up my portfolio of published work, with the goal of eventually being able to sustain a part-time freelance writing practice. I thank Mr. Kwak for the part he played in my first tremendous success, and extend my gratitude to the entire Online Creative Writing program for providing me with the means by which to achieve my goals.
This month we are thrilled to spotlight Online Creative Writing Program alumna Diane Byington, whose first novel, Who She Is, was just published. Diane worked on the book over her two years as an OWC student. I had the personal pleasure of serving as Diane’s one-on-one instructor, which means that I got to see this already marvelous novel in rough-draft form. I fell in love with the character of a young woman who learns about who she really is as a result of running, a sport she turns out to be very good at — partly thanks to her discipline and focus but also due to forces that she guesses at but only learns more about as the story progresses. It’s a story of a personal journey but also an unexpected mystery, as fast paced as the narrator herself. I’m eager to get my hands on it now that it’s revised and finally available for the rest of the world to enjoy.
For this month’s Writer’s Spotlight, Diane has written a guest post about her writing experience, which is followed by the opening chapter of the book, so you can see for yourself why I’m so excited that last month, Red Adept Publishing brought out Who She Is.
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Seven years have gone by since I began the book. My first idea was to write a novel about somebody who had a goal and then accomplished it. Simple, right?
What goal? Who? When? Where? What came to me was a girl or woman who wanted to run a race, maybe a marathon. Obstacles were important. Training would be hard, but that wasn’t enough. There needed to be difficulties regarding relationships, too.
I settled upon Faye, a teenager, as the main character. Her parents wouldn’t support her goal because of a family secret that was related to running, and it would come out during the course of her training.
I happened upon the story of Kathrine Switzer, who in 1967 managed to run the Boston Marathon (women weren’t allowed to run it back then) and was assaulted by the race director. Why hadn’t I known about this bit of history? I would set my book around this event.
The last question was where? I had grown up in Florida, so I explored the area and photographed houses and towns when I went back to visit my family.
I spent a year writing the first draft. Originally, Faye ran with an older woman, and I tried to tell both of their stories. I also took Wendy Nelson Tokunaga’s course on women’s fiction, in which she read my draft and met with me. “Pick one point of view,” she said. “Too much is going on here.” I chose Faye, and the older woman became the mother of her friend Francie, who runs the race with her.
After a second draft, I applied to the OWC program. I was accepted and began a two-year process of honing the story. Working with my instructors and the other students was as exciting a time as I can remember. Malena was my mentor. Her suggestions were invaluable, and I ended up rewriting the book twice during the quarter we worked together.
One struggle was whether the book should be young adult, since its protagonist was sixteen, or women’s fiction. This question dogged me the entire time I was working on the book. I tried my best to make it YA, but it just wouldn’t go there. Eventually, I gave up and decided it was women’s fiction.
Getting the book to the place where it was publishable was a long, grueling process. The only thing I would change would be to have faith in my own desire to write women’s fiction, even if the protagonist is a teenager. My publisher is marketing the book as women’s fiction and historical fiction. We’ll see if the readers agree.
My advice to you is to have faith in yourself and persevere, no matter how long it takes. You can do it. When you do, everything you’ve gone through will be worth it.
Read an excerpt from Who She Is.
This month, we celebrate with Online Creative Writing Program instructor Joshua Mohr, who just sold a memoir that he is currently writing to Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Josh is the author of numerous novels and one previous memoir, and he teaches both nonfiction and fiction. I wanted to take this opportunity to talk to him about why he writes in both forms, and to hear more about the new “real-time” memoir, what that means and what it looks like on the page.
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Malena Watrous: As a novelist and memoirist, which form do you prefer – or find yourself returning to?
Joshua Mohr: I'm hoping to work in both forms for the rest of my life! Each scratches a different literary itch, and I feel very thankful that I can toggle between the two. Fiction is a first love, and I'll never stop writing novels. But I had so much fun writing my first memoir, I'm excited for the opportunity to extend that conversation. To my eye and ear, these are very different pleasures. I'll always have that novelist's programming, some greedy thief making up lies! Turning my imagination loose to do its worst on the page is my favorite part of fiction. I never write with a plan. I just keep showing up and making slow progress.
On the creative nonfiction side, it's a different sort of puzzle. I'm bound to the facts, and the task is twofold: (1) bring structure and causality to reality, which is by definition formless, and then (2) figure out the right words to make an ordinary life dramatic, dangerous, beautiful, even shameful when it needs to be. I think it was Jerry Stahl who compared writing a memoir to giving yourself an autopsy. But I actually find it to be a pleasurable experience. A voluntary self-autopsy? Is that a thing?
MW: Having already written and published a memoir recently, how did you find an idea for another one? Does the "personal well" run dry?
JM: "Selling" this new book is a pretty crazy story. After Sirens came out, I got—of all absurd communications—a Facebook message from a senior editor at FSG. She said she loved my memoir and wanted to talk about doing another nonfiction project together. I just assumed it was a prank. Or a Russian bot. But I knew it couldn't be real, could it? To my pleasant surprise, the editor did indeed turn out to be a real person. We hit it off immediately. The book we're putting together is tentatively called Model Citizen.
MW: How is this one going to be different?
JM: I'm writing this memoir in "real time," writing about what I'm dealing with today and yesterday, last week. There is no distance, no perspective. This project is interested in the visceral present. Specifically, this one will focus on my leaving San Francisco, my home since 1994, and continue to tell the story that Sirens started. It turns out my heart surgery—which is the through-line in Sirens—might not have been as successful as the surgeons had hoped. And we'll spend ample times in the past, too. I lived in this crazy punk house in the Sunset district when I first came to SF. Now that's fertile earth for a memoir!
MW: Does your teaching and work with student writers inform your personal writing at all?
JM: To me, they are the same thing, the same conversation. It's been happening since scribbles on cave walls. We tell stories to understand ourselves and the very confusing enterprise of being alive. Teaching directly feeds my writing because I love community and the knowledge transfer; I love nerding out with others who cherish the written word, and that's gasoline to help me keep prioritizing my art. Writing, too, feeds the teaching, and I'm always updating my essays and lectures, based on cool new things I'm learning along the way. We're all in this together, right?
MW: Absolutely. I feel the same way about my own students, and you remind me of something that Michael Cunningham, one of my early writing teachers, used to say: we are all writing one big book. I like to keep that in mind when I work at both writing and teaching. When we help each other in a workshop, we are helping to improve our one big book. When someone else succeeds, it’s our success too. Writing can be a solitary act, but it shouldn’t be isolating. The more of us who record our distinct experiences and get our unique point of view onto the page, the bigger and more inclusive and complete our shared book becomes.
Josh has generously offered to share a page of his “real-time” memoir, so that we might get a taste of this experimental genre in which he is working:
A couple weeks back, Lelo and I had to have a talk about what we’d do if there was a nuclear strike in Seattle—and if one of us was with Ava while the other wasn’t, what should be the plan of action—how would we find each other?
“I’d want you to leave me,” I said. “I’d want you to get her as far away from the blast site as possible, assuming that’s an option.”
“I won’t leave you here.”
“You absolutely will.”
“We’re a family.”
“Your loyalty needs to be to her, to protecting her.”
“Then you have to leave me, too.”
“Okay,” I said, “I will.”
We were two spouses. Two people who loved one another. We were two people who had been together for twelve years. We were two people who couldn’t even imagine living without the other one around. And yet, if a nuclear bomb was dropped, we made a promise to abandon each other. It was one of the most romantic moments of my life.
“I’d leave you to die alone,” I basically said to her.
“I’ll leave you too,” she said back. “You might be instantaneously incinerated. Or you might die of radiation exposure within the first week. Or that initial shockwave would have left your body badly burned, and some topical infection will end you. Or be slowly poisoned by the air, fallout radiation, cancer—you’ll live in the rubble and hunt for food alone and die a painful tumor death, just like your dad, except you’ll be utterly alone, screaming into the concrete ruins of our lives.”
It was a prewar love story.
And we meant it. We mean it.
If we have to, we will desert each other, forsake the other to a hateful fate. And it would be the right thing to do. Ava will never know that we love her so much that we’d leave the other to die in merciless ways. And for the one of us who hopefully survives with her—for the one who escapes the blast, moves north, say, into Canada—the survivor will find a flower blooming and will lean down and say to Ava, “Smell this,” and she will, and the survivor will find a glass of ice cold lemonade and say, “Taste this,” and she will, smiling at the tang. And the survivor will draw Ava a warm bath and say, “Touch the water, sweetie,” and she’ll crawl in, floating on her back, her blonde hair haloed out around her head. And the survivor will say, “Listen to this,” and will whistle one of the songs from the Moana soundtrack, and Ava, who has recently learned to whistle as well, will join in. And the survivor will say, “Look at this,” and show Ava an old picture when our family had three people, and the survivor will say, “Do you remember? Always remember,” and Ava says, “I will. I promise.”
This month we are excited to spotlight the success of Rebecca Rosenberg, whose marvelous debut novel, The Secret Life of Mrs. London, was just published and is available in bookstores. Rebecca completed this novel while she was a student in the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing, which she discusses in her guest post below. Full disclosure: Rebecca was my One-on-One student in the program, meaning that she and I worked closely through the revision of her novel, which I had read portions of when she was first a student in my OWC Novel 1 course. She found an agent and sold the novel shortly after finishing the program.
Because I know Rebecca and witnessed this process firsthand, I can say that it was her combination of talent, hard work, and tenacity that took her from idea to draft to revision to publication. She approached both the writing and the publication process as a job to which she was fully committed, and she did her best not only to work consistently but also to work smartly, thinking hard about the feedback she was receiving and then putting it to use in a focused way. I was so impressed as I watched how hard and thoughtfully she worked, and I’m so thrilled that her incredible novel about Charmian London (Jack London’s wife) will now be in the hands of readers who are sure to love it as much as I do.
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Guest post by Rebecca Rosenberg:
My novel The Secret Life of Mrs. London was published on January 30, 2018! Never mind my earlier novels still floating up in the cloud somewhere. Maybe they’ll make it into print someday, thanks to Stanford’s Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing. It took me seven years to write my first and second novels, which didn’t get published. I was determined that my third try would make it, or I’d hang up writing! So I enrolled in OWC, finished my novel in two years, and got an agent and a publishing contract six months later.
What worked for me with OWC was taking the course content, assignments, and deadlines seriously, like a job that I gave my all to. (And yes, I had a full-time job as well.) It was inspiring to have a new instructor each quarter with different viewpoints and unique aspects to teach about writing. The more I got into reading and critiquing colleagues’ work, the more I understood the dynamics and tools that were presented. And of course, receiving critiques from instructors as well as peers shook me up and made my story better. Now I know why having a critique group is essential to good writing. As a writer, I have a certain idea of a scene I’m writing, but when you get several readers giving their perspective, it is enlightening. And it prepares you for reviewers later, who can be perplexing. (Take a look at my Goodreads reviews for The Secret Life of Mrs. London and you’ll see what I mean!) Finally, the One-on-One at the end of the program is where you can polish your novel and get ready to pitch agents. I appreciated the sharp eye and concrete suggestions from a seasoned editor.
I miss OWC! But I took a piece of it with me, joining six Stanford colleagues from around the world for a weekly ZOOM.
THE SECRET LIFE OF MRS. LONDON, by Rebecca Rosenberg
San Francisco, 1915. As America teeters on the brink of world war, Charmian and her husband, famed novelist Jack London, wrestle with genius and desire, politics and marital competitiveness. Charmian longs to be viewed as an equal partner who put her own career on hold to support her husband, but Jack doesn’t see it that way…until Charmian is pulled from the audience during a magic show by escape artist Harry Houdini, a man enmeshed in his own complicated marriage. Suddenly, charmed by the attention Houdini pays her and entranced by his sexual magnetism, Charmian’s eyes open to a world of possibilities that could be her escape.
As Charmian grapples with her urge to explore the forbidden, Jack’s increasingly reckless behavior threatens her dedication. Now torn between two of history’s most mysterious and charismatic figures, she must find the courage to forge her own path, even as she fears the loss of everything she holds dear.
I would love to see your review on Goodreads and Amazon!
THE SECRET LIFE OF MRS. LONDON
This month, we are excited to spotlight the recent publication of personal essays by two of our Online Creative Writing students, Cate Hotchkiss and Mike Vangel. Both worked on their pieces while they were students in Stanford Continuing Studies courses, and both happen to have written about fitness—which seems especially appropriate in this month of January, when so many of us are making and trying to keep resolutions. I’m willing to bet that lots of your resolutions center on exercising more regularly, writing more regularly, or both. These two inspiring pieces by Stanford Continuing Studies student authors merged both goals, writing about the process of exercising.
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Cate Hotchkiss was a student in Joshua Rivkin’s Creative Nonfiction course. She is a seven-time marathon runner and wrote this piece about how she trained for her first marathon as a way of getting over a bad breakup while in her 20s.
Mike Vangel has taken two writing classes with Rachel Smith, a fiction writing class on developing characters, and another class on writing comedy and tragedy. This piece about taking his first Bikram (hot and sweaty) yoga class with his girlfriend came from that class, and was published in Men’s Fitness.
MV: That piece actually was published early last year. Rachel Smith pushed us to think about the way tragedy and comedy intertwined in life, and how we might incorporate both into our work, so I'm sure part of the idea came from the prompt she gave us. With the (then) recent experience of forcing myself to try these ridiculous fitness classes, I knew I had something with clear and universal humor potential, but then I wanted to mine it a little deeper, and ended up with all these reflections about body image, too.
I suppose you could make a connection between yoga and writing, although I haven't stuck with the former (I didn't feel like it was doing much for me, to tell you the truth). Both practices are highly ritualistic, and I've tried to approach my writing that way—it's something I do almost every day, first thing, before there are any other worries or distractions. I think developing that practice has improved my writing, and it honestly puts me in a better place to take on the rest of the day. No matter how small, I've already accomplished something creative by seven in the morning, which makes each day feel meaningful. You hear people talk about the clarity they find in things like yoga, so I guess I'd say I find something similar, but in writing instead.
THE WRITER'S SPOTLIGHT 2017
Click here to view stories from 2017. (Note Adobe Reader is needed to view the PDF.)