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.
“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)