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 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.
Caroline Goodwin is a poet, essayist, and memoirist whose most recent collection of poetry, The Paper Tree, was published in March 2017 by Big Yes Press. Since receiving a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, she has taught creative writing extensively both here and at other colleges. This Winter, for the first time, she will be teaching a course for Continuing Studies called "Writing Through Struggle," encouraging students to use whatever challenges may have come up for them as substance for various forms of creative writing. Caroline herself is no stranger to writing through struggle, having maintained a vigorous writing process while dealing with numerous personal losses over the years. In her essay "Amaranth: The Language of Memory," she touches upon those experiences in a poetic and fragmentary way that allows her to revisit them and hold them up to the light of examination. For this month’s Writer’s Spotlight, I asked Caroline about her own creative process and her intentions for the exciting new course.
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Malena Watrous: You lost a baby after a year in which she was very sick, and then much more recently your husband died in a biking accident. I find your writing about loss to be very arresting and invigorating because I don't see you reaching for some kind of pat "closure," but instead trying somehow to make peace with the fact that loss is part of life, no matter how much our culture would like to believe otherwise. Can you talk briefly about how and why you choose to write about this subject?
Caroline Goodwin: Nick and I lost our daughter Josephine in 2002 after two liver transplantations and a total of eighteen trips to the operating room. Josephine was almost a year old when she died. This experience was so strange and surreal, and stressful and traumatizing, and it took us both many years to start to heal. It also brought us very close together as friends and equals in a lot of ways, although our processes were different and often took us away from one another. So when Nick died, I was honestly like, “Okay, Universe, really? Now? Me? My kids? Really? Okay then...”
For me, healing from any kind of trauma is always circular. Anyone who has walked through something like this will tell you that you never really know when intense memories or feelings are going to pop up - often at the most inconvenient times. It's embarrassing to start crying when you're being interviewed or teaching! But that's the way it is. So I want my writing, both poetry and prose, to explore the experience of being in the moment, without closure. For me, this reflects the way it really feels. It's also a core spiritual truth. I hope that my work, both teaching and writing, will bring students and readers into my world for a little while, which is a strange world but also a beautiful world. Through writing, I've been able to form some kind of meaning out of what's happened, and also honor my husband's memory. I know it sounds cliche, but what else do we really have outside of the present moment? And how else can we show respect except by showing up and being our best selves?
MW: Has the act of writing changed the way you think about these losses?
CG: Yes! The act of writing has shown me so much about my core values and my inner resources. In order to look back on my experiences and bring them to the page, I have to be pretty strong. I find that writing is a way of entering a zone of the imagination where anything is possible. It sounds weird, but writing allows me to understand and even celebrate the inherent connections that I possess and that we all possess - connections with my family and with nature, with my children and my own childhood, and even with the mysteries and rhythms of existence. Things come into focus when I'm writing. I can't say it's always pleasant or comforting, but it's satisfying for sure. Writing gives me hope and it also helps me feel less lonely, as does reading and talking with other writers, going to readings, etc. On a side note, funny thing: the piece "Amaranth" was finished and sent to Catamaran Literary Reader for consideration six days before Nick died, so it's full of strange premonitions.
MW: Some writing teachers really dislike the idea that creative writing can be "cathartic." There seems to be one school of thought that holds that this is self-indulgent, that writing shouldn't serve as therapy. I remember when I was in graduate school, there was a definite prejudice against "confessional" poetry, for instance. I don't think that your writing about loss feels self-indulgent in any way, or even particularly confessional. But how can a writer manage to write about personal experience and loss without seeming self-pitying?
CG: This is a terrific question. I have always erred on the side of the sentimental. What's that quote? You have to risk sentimentality to get to the true sentiment? I have always found the label "confessional poetry" to be dismissive in a way that feels like "the patriarchy," although I’m sure that's much too simple. Why are we so afraid of being labeled confessional, though? And so what if the process is cathartic? I guess I've never really understood why catharsis can't be transformed thoughtfully into complex art and writing.
I definitely have the Mean Voice inside saying I'm being self-indulgent. But who cares? Blah blah blah. We all have it. The trick is to ignore it, dive into the catharsis, let the messy thoughts accumulate, and go with it. Eventually, something takes shape. But if we completely resist being confessional or self-indulgent, I'm afraid many of us would make very little progress in our work.
And the question about self-pity is a good one also. I guess I try to remember that I'm not the only one who's experienced loss, even extreme loss. I try to remember that life is a gift and my job is to show up and be the best I can be. This involves writing! And a sense of humor is also a good antidote for self-pity.
MW: Can you talk a bit about your writing process? Do you write daily? Since you write both poetry and prose, how do you decide what form to use on any given day?
CG: Another great question. In order to feel okay on a daily basis, I have to let lots of things "count" in my practice. I make myself engage with my work as early in the day as possible. Sometimes this is just reading a few poems from a recent collection that I admire. Other times it's revision, and still other times it's brand-new work. I tend to do the initial push on a new project quickly, when I give myself time away from my life here in California. For example, I took myself to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories last August with the goal of finishing my memoir about Josephine. What happened was I started on a new poetry manuscript entitled Common Plants of Nunavut, which currently has my full attention. It traces my grief journey around Nick, and also my admiration for the Arctic landscape. Oh, and also the 2017 fire season in British Columbia, which was the worst one on record.
So much is going on everywhere right now. It feels more important than ever to have time on a daily basis to focus on creativity. It's a gift and a privilege to be able to write and teach, I think. My process is pretty darn messy, though - downright ugly, actually - and I let my heart choose which form I'm going to use, poetry or prose. I keep getting sidetracked by poetry, but someday, someday, that memoir will be finished! In the meantime, I'm revising my poetry manuscript while wearing my tie-dyed long johns from Yellowknife's famous Ragged Ass Road.
Click here to read Caroline's essay Roy.
Those of you who follow this monthly column know that I typically interview a Continuing Studies Creative Writing student or instructor whose recent publication or accomplishment I want to celebrate and bring to your attention. This month, I am happy to announce the publication of my own novel, Sparked, a collaboration with Helena Echlin, who also teaches fiction writing for the Online Writing Program. Helena and I decided to do a joint “interview,” in which we discuss why we chose to write a young adult novel together and the ins and outs of collaboration. Along the way, we offer a few tips to our students or any aspiring novelists.
For those who are interested in our novel, us, and our writing process, it’s all at our website.
Online Writing Lead Instructor
Both writers had published adult literary novels. But Sparked is a young adult thriller
Malena Watrous: Helena and I met at a mutual friend's wedding, where we learned that we were both novelists and mothers of young children, and had almost identical taste in books. Not long after that, we met for a drink on a rainy, dark Friday the 13th, and started talking about how we both wanted to try writing the kind of novel we'd read when we were young, when we’d joyfully devoured books under the bedcovers with a flashlight and reread them over and over.
Helena Echlin: We thought that writing a YA book would be easier than writing an adult novel. And more fun, too! We could have teens with powers, an ancient Zoroastrian prophecy, and a boy who could shoot fire from his eyes. We were wrong about it being easier, but it definitely was way more fun.
Deciding to collaborate
HE: We didn’t really decide – it just happened. Malena had drafted a few chapters of a stalled YA novel, and that night in the bar, when she told me her idea, I was hooked. I started furiously scribbling notes and we sat there until the bar closed, hammering out the plot. Even so, I don't think we really thought it would go anywhere. But the next day, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and I wrote a new scene. I sent it to Malena, who edited it and wrote another, and before we knew it, we were collaborating.
MW: I have screenwriter friends who collaborate on projects, and the idea of writing creatively with someone else intrigued me. I had come to a point where I felt a little isolated, writing and teaching writing online. I was really excited to be able to brainstorm and develop material with another writer as amazing as Helena. Within an hour of bouncing ideas back and forth, the seed of the idea I'd had on my own grew into something so much better. That kept being true throughout the process.
The original idea for Sparked
MW: It came from two things. As a kid, I had this recurring dream that I could move things with my eyes. The feeling was so real that I always woke up feeling disappointed that I wasn't actually telekinetic. When I had the dream again as an adult, I started thinking about a teen character who wants to have a power but doesn’t – which becomes really frustrating when other kids in her town do get powers. The other inspiration was the 2002 kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart, who was abducted from her bedroom when she was fourteen, a bedroom she shared with her younger sister. I found it perplexing that her younger sister hadn't heard or called out for help, and I couldn't stop thinking about that younger sister and what it felt like to be left behind.
HE: I have a theory that the Big Idea for a novel often comes from two things you can’t stop thinking about, things that don’t seem to go together. In the process of writing the novel, you find the hidden connections between these two things. Our protagonist, Laurel, feels like she's second best to her sister and these mean girls at her school. That feeling becomes the connecting thread, the thing she has to overcome as she sets out to find and save her big sister, with or without a power.
The logistics of collaboration
HE: After we had an outline for the novel more or less set, we met in a coffeehouse on Monday of every week, roughed out the next couple of scenes we knew we wanted to write, and took on weekly writing assignments. Usually I did the romantic scenes, and Malena did the mean girls. I'm British, and so apparently my teenagers sound like they're on Masterpiece Theater. We’d send each other our new scenes at the end of the week, and then revise the other’s work, sending it back and forth until it got to the point where we no longer remembered who came up with what and the voice was consistent. We pounded out the first draft in a white-hot frenzy of inspiration we called "the Vortex."
The difficulties of collaboration
HE: The first draft seemed incredibly brilliant as it flowed out of us. We had tricked ourselves into believing that because we were writing a paranormal thriller, we could rely on some tested tropes that seemed to appeal to readers of that genre. But after we shared it with a few smart readers and got their feedback, we realized that we'd made some rookie mistakes in our new genre.
MW: Basically, we thought that in order to write a paranormal thriller, there were certain boxes we had to tick, and hadn't realized that we were settling for clichés.
HE: Gorgeous but standoffish hero? Check. Doormat heroine? Check. Gratuitous love triangle? Check. For a brief period, we considered giving up the book. But there were other things about it that we really liked, and after licking our wounds, we got back to our original intention – to write the kind of novel we'd loved reading as teens – and revised it to save the magical parts of the story while making it more uniquely ours, with dark humor and complicated, flawed characters.
MW: Still, finishing took more work than either of us had anticipated.
HE: We’re both perfectionists, so every time one of us thought we were done, the other would decide we needed to do another draft to address some lingering issue. That’s why I have dozens of files on my laptop with names like “SparkedFinal.doc,” “SparkedFinal2.doc,” and “SparkedFinalFINAL.”
MW: As we got closer to the end, sometimes one of us would respond to a piece of writing that the other had worked hard on without putting enough sugar on the feedback. I have a pretty self-critical inner voice. Sometimes I forgot that Helena was a separate person, and inadvertently hurt her feelings. I actually learned from that to be kinder to myself, to silence that inner voice that says “you're no good,” a lesson we gave to our protagonist, who also wants to be a writer.
The best part about collaboration
MW: Sharing a world that we created together, peopled by characters we made up together. When I was little, I used to play “pretend” with my friends, taking on identities and making up situations in which to act them out. Turns out you can play make-believe with your friend as an adult and call it collaborating!
HE: Because we work together, we get to spend way more time together than adult friends usually do. Our friendship feels more like the kind of friendships we had as teenagers.
MW: We just drove to and from Oregon, ten hours each way, and we never once stopped talking – mostly plotting our sequel!
HE: When you write a book alone, there are periods when you want to give up. No one really cares about it to the extent that you do. It’s been great having a partner to shoulder the work of getting the book into the world and into readers’ hands, and also having someone with whom to commiserate about a “meh” review or to celebrate a good one.
How this collaborative novel is different from anything they would have written on their own
MW: In our novel, most of the girls’ powers allow them to enter someone else’s mind in some form. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we often had that slightly eerie experience of mind-meld. I'd come up with a plot point in the middle of the night and email Helena about it – only to receive an email from her about the exact same thing.
HE: The writing process really influenced the story. As we worked together, our book became a story about collaboration. Laurel can’t save Ivy on her own; she has to learn to let other people in and to understand that people working together can create something bigger than anything each could have done on their own.
Parting words of advice for students
MW: Write the book that you want to read, in whatever form that takes. Don't worry about whether it's literary enough. If you're expressing ideas that interest you deeply, using fiction to address questions to which you don't know the answers, then you'll end up with something you can be proud of and have a lot of fun in the process.
HE: Don't be afraid to try something new, whether that's experimenting with genre, collaborating, or maybe just taking a course in a form you're curious to explore. Read widely, and carry a notebook with you to jot down ideas whenever you have them. Writers don't wait for inspiration to hit. They train themselves to find it.
This month’s Writer’s Spotlight by Stanford Continuing Studies’ Online Writing Lead Instructor, Malena Watrous, is focused on Litquake. This upcoming event is a Bay Area literary festival that will feature panel discussions, unique cross-media events, and more than 850 authors giving hundreds of readings. The grand finale capping off the festival takes place on Saturday, October 14, at Lit Crawl—a special night where eighty-five venues in San Francisco’s Mission District become stages for readings open to the public.
This year, for the fourth time, students from the Online Writing Certificate (OWC) program will participate, reading from the novels they have completed over the course of the program.
The six OWC students participating in Lit Crawl will give their readings on Saturday, October 14, from 6:30 – 7:30 pm at The Elbo Room, located at 647 Valencia Street in San Francisco.
Reflections on Litquake, by Malena Watrous.
We are proud to sponsor this special event, featuring readings by Susan Bockus, H.J. Brennan, Debbie Feit, Phil Laird, Michelle Li and Kirsten Lind. I will be emceeing the event, which is always one of my favorite things that I get to do for this job all year. It’s a treat and a thrill to celebrate the tremendous accomplishments of these talented authors, and to hear their stories in their own voices. Please visit litquake.org to learn more about the festival and our student readings.
We can only fit six authors into Lit Crawl, but we have so many more talented writers to celebrate as they finish our program. So, in addition to Lit Crawl, on Friday, October 13, Stanford’s CoHo (coffee shop) will host a fun and informal reading featuring more of the students from our OWC Program. From 9:30 - 11:30 am, students that completed the program this year are invited to share a 5-minute selection from the novels they wrote in their years studying the craft of novel writing with Stanford Continuing Studies.
If you live nearby, we hope you can join us for one or both of the readings!
This month, we celebrate the recent literary accomplishments of Joanne Godley, who is not only an accomplished and gifted writer but also a physician, currently living and working in Hawaii. Joanne has taken many courses through the Stanford Continuing Studies Online Writing Program, in virtually all of the genres that we offer: from creative nonfiction to fiction to poetry. She was my student first in a magazine writing course and then in the Online Writing Certificate Program in Novel Writing, through which she completed a rich and riveting historical novel about an African-American teacher who is recruited to work at a boarding school for Native American children.
Joanne is a uniquely multitalented writer, now hard at work on a memoir based upon her own exceptional life. While the memoir is still a work in progress, she submitted an excerpt from it to the Women’s National Book Association 2017 Writing Contest, and received an Honorable Mention. Another excerpt will be published in an upcoming anthology. If this weren’t enough, Joanne reports that she has “begun work on a collection of lyric nonfiction essays about being a Black physician. And I have a ghost story that keeps nudging me.”
I still remember so vividly a piece that Joanne wrote in my magazine writing course many years ago, about a dish she was compelled (as a good guest) to eat. Read an excerpt here.
Online Writing Lead Instructor
Malena Watrous: Do you prefer writing fiction or nonfiction? What are the pros and cons of each?
Joanne Godley: I prefer nonfiction. I took the Novel Writing Certificate Program to improve my nonfiction writing. I think fiction is more difficult because one has to bring the ideas and characters, the theme, the settings, the plot – everything! I see writing nonfiction as decorating a house that has already been built as opposed to imagining the hole in the ground that will become the house. I enjoy poetry because in some ways, the structure has been set and the challenge is to express one’s ideas within the context of certain number of stanzas.
MW: In your memoir – about marrying an African man and moving to Africa, only to learn that he was a polygamist – is it hard to portray yourself objectively? What about the other people in the story? Is it hard to be “fair” when you have a stake in the story?
JG: Physicians are schooled to be objective and only record, for example, what the patient says in describing her ailment. That said, there is no such thing as true objectivity. I tried to focus my memoir on my reactions to experiences and mentioned him, my ex-husband, as little as possible or indirectly. The memoir is about me, not him. The other people in the story are rendered by virtue of the situations that I depict in the narrative. That makes their portrayal subjective because I select the narratives. The answer is yes; in memoir it is difficult to portray everyone objectively.
MW: How do you find the time both to practice medicine and to write?
JG: In order to make time for a writing practice, I confess to binge writing on weekends. When asked on Mondays, “what did you do on the weekend?,” most of my colleagues would view my answer – “oh, I wrote all weekend” – as mundane. After a productive writing weekend, I am elated, transported, and entranced. I often feel as though I have been in another domain. Reading feeds me creatively! I listen to audiobooks while I’m driving to the hospital – tip: listening to books read by the author are the best! I keep a book of poetry at my bedside. I thrive on music and perform my endoscopic procedures to music. However, I rarely write with music playing.
This month, we celebrate the accomplishments of Suanne Schafer, who just received a publishing contract for her second novel with Waldorf Publishing, due out in 2019 – before her first is even released! Waldorf, based in Texas, is publishing both. Suanne’s first novel, A Different Kind of Fire, will be released in 2018.
Suanne was a student in the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing from January 2012 to October 2014, in which she worked on her first novel. We talked about how that story evolved from the romance she'd envisioned writing into something less conventional, more exciting, and unique, but still true to her Texas roots and her interest in the history of her region.
Online Writing Lead Instructor
Malena Watrous: Tell us a little bit about your background and how it informs your fiction writing.
Suanne Schafer: I was born in West Texas at the peak of the Cold War. Although I haven’t lived there in many years, the vast landscape and my pioneer ancestors certainly influenced my writing. I began the Stanford program thinking I would write romances, but along the way I learned that either as a result of failed relationships or a genetic quirk, I’m incapable of writing the requisite happy-ever-after. Instead, my protagonists tend to be strong women who overcame societal restrictions and harsh environments beside – or despite – men who may or may not love them.
MW: What did you learn or take away from your two years in the OWC Program in Novel Writing, either from classwork or from your fellow cohort members, that helped you to complete this novel and start another?
SS: The most surprising thing I took away from the Stanford program was that writing isn’t necessarily a solitary process. I loved the input of my fellow cohorts and made friends I still correspond with on a regular basis. The professors in the OWC program were all extraordinarily supportive and their feedback saved me years of trial-and-error learning.
MW: Can you share a bit about the experience of trying to get your novel published? There are so many new kinds of opportunities available to writers that many of us don't even understand the choices these days. What does it mean to win a publishing package?
SS: A Different Kind of Fire, my first novel, started out as a retelling of my grandparents’ love story, but as I progressed through the Stanford program, it became more of a feminist’s statement about how much and how little women’s lives have changed in the past 125 years. To complicate matters, my protagonist, Ruby Schmidt, became bisexual, which also complicated the selling of the book. After a year in which I put out sixty-plus query letters, I realized the manuscript was too straight for the gay presses and too gay for the straight presses. One agent said, “I laughed, I cried, I read the entire 400 pages in one sitting, but I don’t think I can sell it. Why don’t you rewrite it as a standard romance?” I turned down several offers because the contracts were poor and the publishers unwilling to negotiate. The manuscript was a finalist in several contests and eventually won a publishing package with a Texas publisher. I am hoping that this will help get this very Texan book out there. They are supposed to help me set up a website for the book, provide marketing support, press releases, etc. So far they have been very supportive. I didn’t care for the contract they offered me, but with the help of an intellectual property rights lawyer, I was able to renegotiate a satisfactory contract.
Recently I received an email from this publisher asking for a manuscript to be published in 2019. As I was about 75 percent through my new novel, tentatively titled Dark Vow, I sent them a proposal and it was accepted in less than three hours.
Read an excerpt from A Different Kind of Fire.
This month, we turn our Writer's Spotlight on Martha Conway, a novelist based in San Francisco whose fourth novel, The Underground River, went on sale June 20.
Martha’s book is available here.
Martha has been teaching for Stanford's Online Creative Writing Program for many years now, and her course on how to create indelible characters always enrolls to capacity within hours. She has published two of her novels with traditional publishers and put out two of her novels herself. Last year, she teamed up on campus with publishing expert Holly Brady to teach a Continuing Studies workshop on how to self-publish intelligently, so that your book gets the care it needs and then gets into the right readers' hands. Martha's first novel, a mystery called 12 Bliss Street, was published by St. Martin's Press and nominated for an Edgar Award. Her second novel, Thieving Forest, received a 2014 Gold North American Book Award for best historical fiction, and her third, Sugarland, was named a Kirkus Best Indie Books of 2016.
I took this opportunity to ask Martha a few questions about her latest novel, The Underground River, and her writing process. Also, because she has such an interesting and varied publishing record, I also passed on a few of the questions that I often hear from students who are curious about the publishing process.
Online Writing Lead Instructor
Martha Conway: I’m fascinated by the fact that, historically, the world hasn’t changed much in terms of divisive conflicts, although the names may have changed. I was constantly reminded of bipartisan American politics when reading about the North and the South in antebellum America. To be honest, I never set out to write about race relations. I usually start with a character who has conflicting desires, but who has to go outside her community to get what she wants.
MW: What inspired you to set this story on a riverboat theater?
MC: I’d been in theater groups as a child and in high school, and for a long time I’ve wanted to write about the kind of tight-knit community that theater seems to inspire. I also was interested in the idea that storytelling and reading and theater-going fosters empathy. May Bedloe, the protagonist in The Underground River, is socially awkward and has been told all her life she has no imagination. But she does have an imagination – we all do – and as she starts to exercise it she learns to think about and feel for others (cue the Underground Railroad). It’s the story of how one woman goes from being a bystander in a political movement to being an active participant.
MW: Having used a traditional publisher twice, and self-published twice, can you share a little bit about the pros and cons of each choice?
MC: Self-publishing is both empowering and exhausting. It’s wonderful to be able to have the final say in everything – cover, formats, price – but it is a lot of work. Because self-published authors can change the price of their book to suit their needs, they can reach a lot more Internet customers. Traditional publishers can get the word out about your book more effectively in newspapers and other media, and can put your book into more bookstores. They do all the heavy lifting for you, and each person on the team is specialized – editor, marketing coordinator, designer, and so on. When you self-publish, you need to learn at least a little bit about each of those jobs, and if you are on a tight budget, you might decide to do them yourself. If you’re not on a tight budget, you can hire professionals. That’s what I did, but it was still very time-consuming. No matter what route you take, it’s important to schedule time for your own writing. That’s what will give you the most joy when the day is done.
Please enjoy this brief excerpt from The Underground River, which is truly a marvelous read, as is everything that Martha writes.
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)