THE WRITER'S SPOTLIGHT
The Online Creative Writing Program is nearing the end of its first decade, running more than fifteen courses each quarter, including our 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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This month, we celebrate the publication of Tilting: A Memoir, by Nicole Harkin, who has taken a wide variety of our online writing courses ever since we first started offering them. Nicole was a student of mine many years ago (I've lost track of exactly how many) in a magazine writing class, where I was immediately taken with her devious – some might say wicked – sense of humor, one I happen to share. Nicole's memoir possesses this same trademark dark humor, but although she manages to find the comedy in her family melodrama, she writes with great love for the people she's remembering, who are flawed and human, as we all are. Nicole's family story may be more extreme than most, which is why it's memoir-worthy, but she also finds universal truths about human frailty and the value of forgiveness, for the wronged as well as the wrong-doer. Tilting will be published June 22, but you can get a sneak preview in excerpts here, and more at www.tiltingamemoir.com. Nicole talked with me about her writing process and how her Stanford courses helped her to write this book.
Online Writing Lead Instructor
An excerpt from Tilting: A Memoir:
We only learned about our father’s girlfriend after he became deathly ill and lay in a coma one hundred and twenty miles from our home.
Overhearing the nurse tell Linda—since I was nine I had called my mom by her first name—about the girlfriend who came in almost every day when we weren’t there to visit him confirmed that the last moment of normal had passed us by without our realizing it. Up to then our family had unhappily coexisted with Dad flying jumbo jets to Asia while we lived in Montana. We finally came together to see Dad through his illness, but he was once again absent from a major family event—unable to join us from his comatose state. This is the moment when our normal existence tilted. Dad recovered, but his marriage ailed, as did Linda, with cancer. Our family began to move down an entirely different path with silver linings we wouldn’t see for many years.
Malena Watrous: When did you start writing this memoir? How long did it take you?
Nicole Harkin: Before Linda – my mother – became sick, I had urged her to write her own story about her relationship with my Dad. And at some point when she had cancer we started writing some small pieces together: “The Just Add Water Cookbook” and other vignettes from my childhood. After she died in 2000, I really wanted to write the book but felt I didn’t quite have the distance from the events nor the tools in my writer’s toolbox to do it. During law school I kept reading for pleasure and because I knew that was the best way to become a better writer: read more. And when I lived in Germany as a Fulbright Scholar, I tried to pull the stories together for the first time but failed. It was only after I had been working for a few years and my husband saw an ad in the Paris Review for the Stanford Online Writer’s Studio that I really started to work on writing. I took one course a quarter for about five years. After I had my second son, and was miserable working, I launched my photography business and was able to write more or less full time. The time from the draft I had when I quit my job to the publication date has been four years.
MW: Can you talk a little about the writing that you generated in your Stanford online courses and how it may have contributed to the writing of this book?
NH: In the Stanford online courses I learned the discipline of writing every day, regardless of what else might get in the way. Only through this daily practice was I able to develop the stories from my childhood that had meaning for my larger narrative. The feedback from fellow students – some of whom I am still in contact with – and the professors, gave me new insights regarding my writing. And reading the other students’ work gave me ideas. Additionally, I learned a lot of the soft skills needed in writing: how to craft a query letter, how to put a submission together, the specific formatting for a manuscript, etc.
One professor challenged me to rewrite my book in first person, which I did during the course. After I finished, he reviewed the pieces I submitted and asked me if this exercise had helped me expand any of the stories, make any of the details more concrete? Yes, it had. He then suggested that I rewrite the book again into third person! He was right. The book was better for the two rewrites, but I still think of him as Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid: wax on, wax off.
Another excerpt from Tilting: A Memoir:
He hadn’t died. He wasn’t a vegetable, but he was like an infant who could talk.
We knew when we knew. But the reality of what was happening didn’t clobber us over the head in the same way his initial illness had. His improvements were gradual, as was our understanding that he wasn’t the same person.
The process gained momentum steadily as a different drug or bandage or medical device was removed. But he was still on a fair amount of pain medicine. He watched the Weather Channel constantly in his hospital room.
“Montana, move the fan, please. It’s going to melt,” said Dad from his hospital bed.
“What are you talking about, Dad?” asked ten-year-old, but almost six-feet-tall, Montana.
“Montana, the fan. Move it away from the window.”
“But it can bring in the cool air. Aren’t you hot?”
“Montana, the fan’s made out of chocolate. You can see that. If it stays in the sun, it will melt.”
We looked at the fan and then at Dad. Everything and nothing had changed.
I have often imagined what life might have held had Dad died the first time he was sick. My parents would have never divorced and a whole mythology surrounding their relationship would have emerged – a happy story. They met flying and our family had been perfect. Remember the trip to Legoland? Or watching him bass fish on the lake? He had such a love of life. How he took us skiing every weekend? He was so much fun. Gone would be the memories of having to choose between giving him my mother’s diamond ring or having a relationship with him.
I don’t regret not giving him the ring, because even if I had given it to him, there always would have been something else. Something else to try to control my behavior with.
If Dad had died, Linda would have taken charge of our finances. She would have sold the house and the extra cars. Maybe the kids would have resented her for living and having made the hard choice to take Dad off life support. I doubt I would have finished school at my large university. Too expensive, Linda would have said because she had three more children to educate.
What if Linda hadn’t died? Would Linda have moved? Would Linda have married Walt? Would Gram and Linda have talked to each other again? Would Erica have had Tanner? Would Linda have stopped smoking and never gotten cancer? Would I have felt greater sadness that Dad was dead?
In either outcome, I am sure that Linda would have gotten cancer, and she would be dead now. Both of my parents would still be dead, just in a different order.
This month I talked to June Gillam, author of the Hillary Broome series of literary mysteries, who recently completed the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing (even though she'd already written complete novels) out of a desire to learn more about the craft of novel writing and to get a better Kirkus review on her next book. She succeeded! June talked to me about both writing and marketing her novels, as well as about the exciting process of casting them for the audiobook versions.
Online Writing Lead Instructor
Malena Watrous: Where did you get the idea for your Hillary Broome character and her series?
June Gillam: Hillary Broome was a minor character in my first, still unfinished, novel. A Northern California reporter abandoned by her mother at age ten and raised by her award-winning journalist father, Hillary stepped out of that early novel and became the protagonist in House of Cuts, after some of my critique partners said how much they liked her. In Cuts, Hillary grows into a hero figure hunting the story of a crazed butcher overtaken by personal anguish who becomes mad enough to kill—and to uniquely showcase the skills of his trade. Along the path of her series arc, searching for her long-lost mother, Hillary is forced into battling other villains in order to save the people she loves. In House of Dads, the culprit is the head of a patriarchal family business; in House of Eire, Hillary takes on a rapacious theme park developer scheming for personal gain in Ireland.
MW: You had already written a few novels in this series before starting the OWC program, and you also teach writing online. Can you share a bit about why you decided that this program would help you, and what you learned from it that you did or didn't expect to learn?
JG: Well, the second book in the Hillary Broome series—House of Dads—received a mixed Kirkus review: too many points of view and not enough character development. Right after I saw that review, I applied to the OWC program in order to improve my writing processes and outcome. My journey through the two-year program was stimulating and rewarding; I got so much from workshopping with other novelists and learning from you, Josh Mohr, and Ammi Keller, my final-project instructor. House of Eire’s Kirkus review was good enough that I let it go public. So the OWC program not only was tremendous fun but also paid off by way of the improved review from Kirkus—and increased sales, too.
MW: How much longer do you foresee writing Hillary Broome novels? Do you keep having ideas for these books or are you getting pulled in other, new directions?
JG: The pleasures of staying with Hillary’s story are many. I’ve gotten to see her grow from an insecure young single woman, orphaned by her powerful father, who loses her own byline due to obsessive meltdowns when reporting on stories of bad mothers and commits the unforgivable journalistic sin—becoming part of the story. She becomes a ghostwriter and matures into a married woman with children, still obsessed with finding her own mother and healing that wound. I’m on book four now, House of Hoops, centered on Sacramento’s new basketball arena. And as a new character appears in those pages—an African-American grandmother—I find that book five’s central problems are insisting on their place in the series’ future: House of Crows is in the nest!
MW: What are the pleasures and pitfalls of series writing?
JG: The pitfalls of writing a series include having to remember details such as eye color, height, etc., from book to book for all the continuing characters. One way to overcome that problem, as one of my fellow writers in Sisters in Crime noted recently, is to kill off those ancillary actors as the series moves along!
MW: You are in the category now known as the "authorpreneur," where you are your own publisher and publicist, and you wear any number of other hats aside from that of writer. What do you like about overseeing all areas of book production and sales? Any tips for others thinking about taking this route?
JG: I like being able to set my own prices. Traditional publishers set the price and the author has no say. This happened to me in 2009, where the publisher of my book Creating Juicy Tales: Cooperative Inquiry into Writing Stories set the price way too high, in my view. That experience led me to want control over all aspects of my publications, so I created my own business—Gorilla Girl Ink. It is a LOT of work, though, having to carry out all the tasks involved. Some friends and I are planning to create a company together, in which we will divvy up the various tasks.
MW: Finally, I am very interested in hearing about the process of turning your books into audiobooks. Please tell us a bit about how you made that happen and what it has been like to hear actors read your characters.
JG: One of my critique partners, Michele Dreier, had an audiobook produced of the novella that gives the background story of the main vampire character in her series “SNAP: The Kandesky Vampire Chronicles.” Listening to the dramatic telling of that story enchanted me, and I was thrilled to learn how simple the process had been for my friend. Basically, after you have a .pdf file of your book, you go to ACX.com, Audiobook Creation Exchange, and follow the directions to find a good voice actor for your story. Then you submit a short portion of your manuscript as a script and listen whenever producers upload an audition reading. You can choose among voices and producers you like and can either pay them or offer Royalty Share, which is the way I’ve gone with the two books on Audible.com now—House of Cuts and House of Dads. Hillary Broome book three, House of Eire, is in production now, along with my poetry chapbook, So Sweet Against Your Teeth. With Royalty Share, it costs the authorpreneur nothing except time spent to listen and respond to each chapter of the work as the producer completes it and sends it for review. It’s a joy to hear your own books read by a polished professional voice—Ginny Harman, who read mine, taught me how to better read my own novels!
June’s books are available through her website, and at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, audible.com, and elsewhere.
APRIL 2017What a great month! I keep getting emails from our former Online Creative Writing students, either sharing news of their own recent publications or prizes, or letting me know about classmates with good news of their own. As you’ll see from the three we’re celebrating below—an essayist, a mystery novelist, and a poet—our students’ writing is as diverse and unique as they are. Each writer shares a bit about the origins of their project, followed by links to where you can check them out.
Online Writing Lead Instructor
Harley Mazuk is celebrating the publication of his first novel, a private-eye story with a love triangle, set in San Francisco and the nearby wine country in 1948. He writes: “I wrote my story in a pulp fiction style in which character is revealed through action, as opposed to introspection. The protagonist is a ne’er do well pacifist who bungles along but is redeemed by his courage and perseverance. This is not the book I was working on in class—that was my second novel in the series—but in the long revision process that followed, I certainly used what I learned in class.” Read more about White with Fish, Red With Murder on the Driven Press website or read an excerpt on the Driven Press blog.
Ann Pelletier has a new book of poetry out, called Letter That Never. She writes, “the book is a series of what I think of as imagined autobiographies written in the voices of the exiled, disappeared, sequestered. For several years I've been meeting online weekly with three other people to write. We generally begin with some kind of prompt, which we either use or ignore, write for a couple of hours, and then read what we've written. Many of the poems in the book got started during those writing sessions.” It’s published by The Word Works and can be found on Amazon.
Lynne Blumberg writes: The essay I developed in Otis Haschemeyer's Tools class and finished in Lewis Robinson's Description class has been published. It's called "When I Realized My Religion," and it is in Tiferet: A Journal of Spiritual Literature. Also, something I wrote in response to an exercise in one of Malena Watrous' daily practice classes developed into an essay, and this was also published. This personal essay is called, "Learning from My Past," and it is in WritingDisorder.com/creative-nonfiction, Winter 2016-17 edition.
This month we celebrate the recent publication of a memoir by our beloved and acclaimed instructor Joshua Mohr: Sirens. Josh has been teaching for us for many years, most regularly in our Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing. In addition to teaching and raising his young daughter, he also manages to find the time to produce new books at a prodigious rate. Sirens is his first book-length work of nonfiction. Here’s how his publisher, Two Dollar Radio, describes the book:
“A raw and big-hearted chronicle of substance abuse, relapse, and family compassion. Sirens provides a harrowing and complicated account of Mohr's years of substance abuse and culpability. Employing the characterization and chimerical prose for which he has been lauded, Mohr leaves no rock from his sordid past unturned, from his childhood swilling fuzzy navels as a latchkey kid, through the blackouts and fistfights, his first failed marriage, to his path to sobriety, through the birth of his daughter and the three strokes he suffers in his thirties that reveal he has a literal hole in his heart.”
Kirkus Reviews says: “By turns raw and tender, this book not only chronicles a man's literary coming-of-age. It also celebrates the power of love while offering an uncensored look at the frailties that can define – and sometimes overwhelm – people and their lives. An entirely candid, compelling memoir of addiction and the long, fraught road of recovery."
I took the opportunity to ask Josh a few questions about this new book:
Malena Watrous: As a novelist, why did you decide to write a memoir now?
Joshua Mohr: I wrote the first draft of this under immense duress. On New Year's Day 2014, I had a stroke - actually my third stroke - and the doctors determined I had a severe congenital heart defect and they needed to operate. I was thirty-eight years old. The surgery was scheduled for March 11, so I had two months of waiting, and because my daughter was only eighteen months old at the time, if I had died during the heart surgery, she'd have no conscious recollection of me. So I used that two-month window to write her a love letter. That's when I finished the rough draft.
MW: How was the experience of writing your story different from the experience of making up a character’s story?
JM: It's easier - and it's harder. I don't have to invent backstories, logic, etc. But I do have to be abjectly honest and emotionally nude on the page. Writing Sirens was the scariest thing I've ever done as an author.
MW: Having finished a memoir now, do you have any advice for students or beginning writers considering writing memoirs?
JM: Structure is key in nonfiction. People seem to want to tell their stories straight, hyper-linear, and it's always more interesting when writers are more nimble with their architecture. I'd already published five novels so I very deliberately structured Sirens as a novel - no fatty exposition, a reliance on scene. Memoirists tend to indulge their own histories, but I tried to curate this one in a compressed way, making it readable and greyhound lean.
MW: Did you find the experience of writing a memoir cathartic or was it emotionally difficult to access and report honestly on painful memories and misbehavior?
JM: Honestly, the most difficult part of writing nonfiction is that protracted examination of the past's pain. It would be one thing if you could write it and then poof - you're done with that vignette. But memoir, just like fiction, is all about revision, going over scenes time and again, exhausting all your options. It becomes an exercise of sitting in your shame for large swaths of time. Oddly, I had a blast doing it. I'll definitely write another memoir. People seem to connect with the material in a more intimate way. When I tour for a novel, people say things like "Good book, man," then they go on living their lives. I've just finished the West Coast leg of the Sirens tour and the conversations I've had with readers have been marvelous. People are coming to the events to share their stories with me. The book has become a kind of catalyst for dialogue, which is the whole point of making art: to connect to other humans on this confusing planet!
MW: What are some the pitfalls that new memoir writers should watch out for?
JM: Write the scenes you don't want to write. That's where the good stuff is. The most fertile and terrifying scenes are the ones that (eventually) have to be in the book. And try not to worry about your family's feelings. I keep hearing people say that they want to write a memoir and they would except for their dad or sister or son, etc. Worry about the ethics in the revision process. At first, just let your imagination feel free to write the book. Don't stew on practical matters until you've honored the art.
MW: Did you know what you were going to write, or did you ever surprise yourself by what came out?
JM: Well, it's a pretty weird memoir! There are talking dogs and a dead Nazi doctor and a duffel bag that I readily converse with - there are scenes that never happened, superimpositions of the future. To me, the most poignant moment of the book is a fictionalized conversation I may or may not have with my daughter when she's in her twenties. I openly wept while I wrote it. That's the power of nonfiction in 2017: that it can be so many things, not just things that have happened in the memoirist's life, but also dramatizations of our greatest fears and frets. We live in an age right now where memoirists are taking wonderful risks and that's exciting to me.
Inspired by the national Why There Are Words series (founded in Sausalito), Story Is the Thing invites established and emerging authors to read and discuss passages that they select from an assigned theme. The Kepler’s event takes place February 16 at 7:30 pm and the evening’s theme is “the electrifying moment.” Angela is hoping that some of her students who live on the peninsula might be able to attend, so that she can meet them in person and talk to them about their writing lives as well as her own. Angela is the author of the story collection Home Remedies, and the novel Lay It on My Heart.
You can learn more about the February 16 event here: http://www.keplers.com/event/story-thing-keplers-quarterly-reading-series-0
An Interview with Core Instructor in our Online Certification Program in Novel Writing, Angela Pneuman
Malena Watrous: Having written both a collection of stories and a novel, which form calls to you now, and why? What do you like (or dislike) about both the long and short forms of fiction?
Angela Pneuman: While I was working on the novel, I kept thinking of stories I wanted to write. Unwritten stories are always so good! So now I’m working in the short form again. I like it because I think it tolerates a lot of variety and risk – whether technique or subject matter. For example, I loved Wells Tower’s story “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,” but I was happy enough for it to be over, too.
I like the novel form because of its relationship to time. It takes more time to read a novel, of course, and so the reader is having a certain experience of moving through time themselves while reading a narrative that must manage time – usually, but not always, a greater span than that of a short story. Because I can rarely read a novel in one sitting, that experience of picking it up and putting it down and doing something else in between is more like living with something than visiting it. Whenever I consider novels I’ve read, I remember so vividly the parts of my life I was living while reading them—and that doesn’t happen so much with short fiction, for me. And of course writing a novel is like being married to it. I’m sort of excited to start on a genre-ish novel next, a crime story based on something that happened in coal country like where I grew up.
MW: You split your work hours among writing, teaching writing, and commercial writing in the wine business, as well as conference organizing. How do you manage to pay the bills and also save enough time and energy for your creative work? Do you have any tips for our working writers?
AP: I was thinking that the way you know you’re an extrovert or introvert has less to do with whether or not you like to be around people and more to do with how you feel afterward: energized or drained. I’m lucky that everything I have to do for a living reenergizes me in some way—at least most of the time. With teaching, I get to teach books I love, and talk with people who have also read them. I get to talk about a process – writing fiction – that is, in its best practice, sacred. And the wine stuff keeps me grounded in a world of soil, weather, the market, people who work with their hands, engineering, science – none of which I studied in school, and all of which I find interesting. I get to watch coopers make barrels, for example, and toast them over fires. I’ve visited the biggest bottling lines in the world – on a scale that is hard to comprehend, visually, but is appealing in its industrial way.
I do find my creative approach has changed some since the days I was in school and had more free hours. Now I make a lot of lists, wherever I am, which I try to keep firmly in the material world. I try to leave the observed objects and moments pregnant with emotion and reference, rather than attempt any meaning-making. My little notebooks are like anti-journals, I think. I don’t want to write why, just what, and something about training my observing mind to stay that way has been helpful when it’s time to turn to fiction. There, the “why” lies in wait to surprise me.
With the wonderful Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, I have a fantastic team that keeps things running smoothly. It’s a pleasure to bring some of the world’s best contemporary poets and fiction writers into this small community – to hear them read to the public and to watch them inspire the writers in their workshops.
MW: What have you learned from teaching, and/or from having finished and put two books into the world? Do you have any words of hard-won wisdom for writers who are closer to the start of their careers, something you'd like to go back and tell your beginner self?
AP: It’s hard not to want to do it right the first draft. But it’s the most destructive thing for me and for most writers I work with. There are the lucky few who naturally embrace mess, and then there are the rest of us who have to learn – usually over years – to get comfortable with it, to trust it. It’s so natural to want to be good, but that desire is the enemy of early work. You know how Emerson says “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts?” That voice that tells us it has to be good is that thought-rejecting voice. It’s hard to press “pause” on it, but it must be done in the early drafts. That rejecting voice, though, can become the voice of discernment in revision. So you press “pause” on it, then when you’ve discovered what it is you’re up to, you press “play” and let it do its organizing, evaluating, analyzing, winnowing thing.
This month, we are thrilled to spotlight the recent success of Online Writing Certificate student Elaine Ray, who received the 2016 Gival Press Short Story Award. Her story, titled “Pidgin,” was chosen by competition judge Thomas H. McNeely, who happens to be an instructor in the OWC program, although he never taught Elaine. Small world! The award carries a prize of $1,000 and publication in the ejournal ArLiJo (Arlington Literary Journal), Issue 95. Here is a link to Elaine’s story: http://arlijo.com/
About Elaine RayElaine is a journalist and fiction writer based in Stanford, California. She grew up in Pittsburgh, where she had many imaginary friends - who became characters in stories she later wrote. She has spent most of her career as a journalist, working for many years as an editorial writer for the Boston Globe and as an editor and writer for Essence magazine. She is currently Director of Communications and Web Strategy at Stanford. Her blog, My Father’s Posts, is a collection of her own commentary and the writings of her father, Ebenezer Ray, who was a journalist in Harlem from the 1920s through the 1940s. She recently completed the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing offered by Stanford Continuing Studies and is working on the final draft of a novel titled Wanted.
Thomas McNeely's Praise for "Pidgin"
“In fewer than twenty pages, “Pidgin” sketches a world of its narrator of color’s post-colonial migration, political activism, and imprisonment within the choices offered him by history. At the same time, it’s a narrative that seems shaped by mysteries that transcend and yet throw into sharp relief its political moment, the chief one being the brilliant voice of its narrator, who is at once mercilessly exposed and utterly enigmatic. Elaine Ray is a writer who plays by her own rules, and is a writer to watch.”
—Thomas H. McNeely, Gival Press Short Story Award judge and author of Ghost Horse
THE WRITER'S SPOTLIGHT 2016
Click here to view stories from 2016. (Note Adobe Reader is needed to view the pdf)