THE WRITER'S SPOTLIGHTThe Online and On-Campus Writing Programs offer more than one hundred courses each year, including the two-year Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing. This space will aim the spotlight on the talented alumni and faculty of our courses, featuring news of recent successes, opportunities for networking and publishing, short personal essays, and interviews relevant to all aspects of the writing life. If you have a piece of news or know of an opportunity you'd like to share with our community, please email: continuingstudies.stanford.edu.
May 2021This month, we are delighted to spotlight former Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing student Sally Cole-Misch, whose novel, The Best Part of Us, was published by SheWrites Press in September 2020 and was a finalist for the 2020 Sarton Award for Contemporary Fiction. Cole-Misch has advocated for the natural world throughout her career as a journalist, environmental educator, public affairs director for a US-Canada boundary waters commission, and consultant for effective environmental communications. About her novel, Kirkus Reviews said: “The novel…honors the natural world with dazzling imagery....A dramatic, rewarding story about woman reconnecting with family, nature, and herself." She generously wrote a piece for us this month, describing her evolution from journalist and environmentalist to novelist, how the certificate program helped her to realize this dream, and how she used this story to explore and deepen her ideas about the natural world.
Malena Watrous, Online Creative Writing Lead Instructor and Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator
Does a story come from us or through us? If you’d asked me that question ten years ago, I would have answered the former. As a journalist and environmental communicator, I followed a traditional writing process: research; hypothesize; outline‘ identify key points and quotes as linchpins to drive the article, report, or video forward; and summarize with a strong, clear conclusion. Always from me, using knowledge and experience gained over time.
By 2012, after decades of reporting on the state of our natural environment (which includes us, by the way), my optimism had reached a low confidence level that my writing could help humans use our collective intelligence and our will to live to change how we live. In the early days of environmental reporting, we hammered home all the horrible ways humans are destroying our air, water, and soil. By the early 2000s, we realized that this approach wasn’t creating enough personal or collective change and switched our focus to helping people connect with nature first, because what they value, they will act to protect.
The benefits of spending time in nature are well documented in hundreds of studies: nature feeds the soul, reduces stress, makes us more aware of the world around us as well as within, and gives us a sense of generosity and commitment to something larger than ourselves. Research also shows that once we are connected with nature, scary news about climate change or other environmental issues is more likely to drive change in our daily actions.
While those of us who are making those essential connections with nature on vacations are seeking refuge in natural spaces, family cottages, and national parks, the average American spends only 7 percent of their daily life outdoors. Even if we only need two hours outside per week to reap all of nature’s benefits and enhance our caring for it, we’re falling far short.
I needed a new approach to my writing in order to reinvigorate my optimism and my messaging. Could I try fiction—write a novel that reflects how we are part of and interconnected with the natural world, without preaching? Where nature is as much of a character as the people are, and which is written well enough that someone besides my family or friends want to read it?
All credit goes to the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing’s gifted instructors and to the generous, amazing writers who also completed the program in the 2013-2016 cohort for providing the instruction and encouragement I needed to give it a try. With the first draft of a manuscript in hand at graduation, I spent any free hours over the next three years writing eleven more drafts and listening closely to beta readers to get to a final version. The Best Part of Us is the result.
Here’s the best part of this story: a writing exercise in my first OWC course changed my entire perspective toward how and why to write the novel and toward my environmental work, too. After completing detailed biographical sketches of primary characters (in my case five humans and nature itself), we were assigned to freewrite a letter from each of them to ourselves. The first line was to read, “Dear Sally, There’s something you don’t know about me...”
I still remember the odd sensation of sitting in my local library, closing my eyes, and letting the letters spill onto my computer screen for eleven hours without a clue about what most of the sentences meant. Feeling the characters come alive through me, however, was magical and exciting. Like I was meeting new friends who would become lifelong companions and had important thoughts to share. The joy of writing I’d once known but forgotten was coming back.
As I wrote and rewrote, every time I focused on listening rather than controlling the narrative, the characters and the story deepened. I played with what scenes to add and where, like puzzle pieces, and let the characters color them in. By the tenth draft I could see how their various storylines wove together into a united story. That’s when I let myself read their letters again, and I was amazed how the story had become true to each character’s original message.
The novel writing certificate program and writing The Best Part of Us reminded me why I love to write, and renewed my faith in the value of what I’m writing. By freewriting the essential messages and emotions behind the latest environmental report or article, I can get to the heart of those issues literally and figuratively—which creates greater response from readers as well. And I’m meeting a new set of characters, who are introducing themselves with greater impatience in every freewrite. What fun.
This month, we would like to use the Writer’s Spotlight page to announce an upcoming information session about the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing. The application window for Fall 2021 runs from April 12 through June 4. This information session is intended to help prospective students determine if this program would be a good fit to serve their particular needs as aspiring novelists.
The program consists of a five-course series and an elective and was designed to guide dedicated fiction writers from the idea for a novel (or early draft stage) to a full manuscript. At the end of the sixth course, students have the option of signing up for a one-on-one tutorial, launching their novel’s revision under the direction of an accomplished fiction writer and instructor.
Join us for our online information session on Wednesday, April 21 at 12:00 pm (PT) to hear from program administrators as well as recent alumna Tracey Lange, who used her two years in the program to work on her novel, We Are The Brennans, which will be published in August of 2021.
While attendees will get a chance to ask questions of their own, program co-founder and coordinator Malena Watrous answers some common questions below. Malena is a novelist and also teaches in the certificate program.
Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing FAQ
Q: How is the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing similar to or different from getting an MFA?
A: Most MFA programs mix cohorts between long and short fiction writers, while our program is exclusively focused on novel writing. An MFA (or sometimes a PhD) can be a requirement when someone is applying to teach at the university level. This certificate won’t fill that role. Most students in MFA programs are expected to take fairly substantial course loads which include studying literature and theory. We only ask students to take one course per quarter, which is a writing class, but instructors bring literature and theory into these writing courses.
Q: How flexible is the schedule/are there set times when I have to be online?
A: Because our program is (and always has been) entirely online, our students come from all over the country and even world. Most of our instruction is asynchronous, meaning there is never a time when students must be online. can log into Canvas and do their work when they have time. We do have a weekly hour-long Zoom session, but attendance is optional and it is always recorded for later viewing.
Q: Who is the right applicant for the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing?
A: Someone who is quite serious about their fiction writing, who has been working at it for a while in a demonstrable fashion, ideally by taking at least one prior writing workshop. We have novelists writing in various genres: contemporary fiction, mysteries and thrillers, sci-fi, historical fiction, even some novels-in-stories, and YA. Regardless of genre, we look for applicants who care about language and wish to create resonant books. We don’t accept writers working on middle grade fiction (intended for ages 8-12) or below, because when you’re writing for readers that young, the concerns and constraints of the genre are significantly different from adult fiction, which is the focus of our program and instruction. This is not a program for memoirists, although autobiographical fiction writers are welcome to apply.
Q: How selective is the program?
A: We can accept 60 students, which recently has been about 40-45% of total applicants. The selectivity of our program means that the cohort is comprised of passionate writers who have already learned the basics of fiction writing and are ready to learn how to make their novels work—everything from balancing subplots to weaving in a character’s misbelief, to figuring out how to sow the seeds of the ending in the beginning of a book. The selectivity also means that students can enjoy collaborating with similarly dedicated and informed classmates. Many of our students end up forming writing groups that they sustain for years after finishing the program.
Q: Do I already need to be working on a novel when I apply?
A: You don’t necessarily need to be at work on your novel, although almost all students apply with at least a pretty fleshed out idea for one, if not also a sample chapter or two. We love it if the description of the project in the Personal Statement matches the writing sample, although we know that’s not always possible. However, some students have been admitted who may have only written short stories in the past and are applying with the desire to start their first novel. Some students also enter the program with a rough draft already finished, knowing that they want to use their time to refine and revise it, which is also fine. Our goal is to offer you the tools, instruction and community to write the best possible novel that you can in two years.
Q: Do your students go on to publish their novels?
A: Many of our students have begun publishing the books they’ve written while in this program, and this monthly column often features their success stories. Nothing thrills us more than when we learn of a student getting a publication, winning an award or finding other forms of recognition for the novels they produced under our guidance. Our students have also sometimes gone on to attend such prestigious MFA programs as the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
March 2021This month, we are delighted to spotlight our wonderful writing instructor Joshua Mohr, whose second memoir, Model Citizen, will be available March 9. Joshua Mohr is the author of a previous memoir, Sirens, as well as five novels: Damascus, which The New York Times called "Beat-poet cool"; Some Things that Meant the World to Me, one of O Magazine’s Top 10 Reads of 2009 and a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller; Termite Parade, a New York Times Editors’ Choice; Fight Song; and All This Life, which received the Northern California Book Award. He is the founder of Decant Editorial. Josh recently shared his thoughts on his latest book, the memoir versus the novel as forms, and an exciting project in the works.
Malena Watrous, Online Creative Writing Lead Instructor and Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator
Malena Watrous: I am so excited to read Model Citizen, which sounds incredible, but also so sorry to hear of your strokes and how they have required medications that potentially affected your ongoing sobriety. Can you talk a little about the time period covered in the memoir and how you got through it? Did you realize as it was ongoing that you wanted to write a book about the experience, or was it only after coming through to the other side?
Joshua Mohr: I wrote this memoir in two discrete chunks. Parts 1 and 2 of the book, I wrote while waiting for my heart surgery. My third stroke was on January 1, 2015, and my heart surgery was scheduled for March 11 of that year. So I had two months sitting on my hands, worrying. My daughter was only eighteen months old at the time, and if I died on the operating table, she'd have no idea about our relationship, who her old man was, et cetera. So I wrote the book as a love letter to her. Then about two years after my surgery, I had another stroke. That one was so demoralizing because they had said—and still do—that the surgery worked. Which means they don't know how to stop these strokes. They said I wouldn't live out of my forties. That sort of "unknowingness," if that's even the right word, is so terrifying. I wanted to write into that complexity, that horror—and that became parts 3 and 4 of the memoir.
MW: You have published novels and a memoir before this one. Tell us a little about your different experiences with fiction versus nonfiction. Do you have a preference at this point? What does each genre give to you (or ask from you)? When do you know that you want to use an experience more or less as it happened (in nonfiction) versus transforming it via fiction?
JM: I try to always have a fiction and a nonfiction project going at the same time. That way, I can never use writer's block as an excuse. I hit the wall in this one, so I flop over to the narrative. I derive a lot of daily joy, scribbling, regardless of genre. That's the thing for me: Life makes the most sense when I scribble every day. I try to honor my art, look it in the eyes, and whisper that it's important by carving out the time. While I wrote Model Citizen, I was also deep into a historical fiction novel about Gold Rush San Francisco. That will come about in about two years with Farrar Straus and Giroux as publisher. I've already sold the television rights and the filmmaking team Radio Silence is attached to bring it to life. If you didn't see their debut feature last year, Ready or Not, it's good, pulpy fun.
MW: Having built a writing career with longevity and range, and as a popular writing instructor in the Continuing Studies creative writing program, what is the main piece of advice do you have for our students as they try to create sustainable and productive writing careers of their own?
JM: Honor your nuanced imagination. Write the stories that only you can cook up. I'm teaching a dialogue course right now, and in our office hour recently, I told the students, "Write what you know, but never what you understand." That's very important, too. You can't start from a place of clarity; it has to be curiosity, writing into the moral mud of being alive. We need open hearts and open ears to approach truth as storytellers.
MW: Do you write every day, always? How about when you've just finished a book?
JM: I write every day, yes. Even if it's just to line-edit a paragraph, on a day with sprawling dad/husband/job duties. I find at least ten minutes a day. None of us is so important we can't find ten minutes to honor our craft. To me, it's muscle memory. I've been writing every day for over twenty years. It's almost involuntary at this point, but that only came because I put the hours in. Butt in the chair. I'll take work ethic over talent any day of the week, though I'm glad they aren't mutually exclusive.
MW: Did the process of writing this memoir surprise you? What kinds of discoveries did you make while writing it, versus while living through the experiences it chronicles?
JM: This is gonna sound uber-nerdy, but writing memoir is the most exciting, the most surprising to structure. Reality, obviously, is formless, and memoirists need to find shape, aboutness, an arc from that formless reality we call a life. I'd argue that most memoirs fail due to inferior architectures, not content. So how we curate our system of life experiences is as vitally important as the material itself. Model Citizen is very ambitious structurally, and I learned a ton writing this book. That's honestly what it's all about for me. I'm not trying to get "good" at writing; I want to remain an apprentice forever, constantly challenging myself on a project-by-project basis. We all know that our characters need things at stake for a book to work, but I'd argue the artist needs something at stake, too. For me, that's the willingness to try new things, to risk abject and public failure, to evolve via experimentation. And if we stay apprentices, we'll always slake to learn more.
February 2021This month it is my pleasure to spotlight numerous recent accomplishments from Joanne Godley. Joanne is a physician as well as a “triple-threat” author: a poet, fiction writer, and creative nonfiction writer. Over the years, she has taken many courses in the Stanford Continuing Studies Online Creative Writing Program, and was an early participant in the two-year Certificate Program in Novel Writing. There she wrote a lyrical and haunting historical novel about a young teacher at a boarding school for Native American children who have been forcibly removed from their homes and placed into a system that aims to strip them of their culture. Joanne’s prose is exquisitely poetic, and I was thrilled to learn of the publication of her first poetry chapbook, Picking Scabs from the Body History. Her most recent creative nonfiction piece is forthcoming from The Massachusetts Review.
I asked Joanne to write about her trajectory as a writer in three different genres. She produced this lyric essay addressing why the lyric essay—often oversimply defined as a hybrid of poetry and essay—is itself her favorite form.
Malena Watrous, Online Creative Writing Lead Instructor and Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator
I began with the information I had amassed:
1. I started with a paragraph of backstory about Anarcha derived from Sims’s autobiography. Her master had brought her to Dr. Sims because of complications incurred during childbirth.
2. I researched the reactions of women from African countries who had suffered similar postpartum (after childbirth) complications. How had they understood and processed their ailments?
3. I researched primary source data on the technical details of the operation, which included Dr. Sims’s footnotes.
Then I began writing:
4. I wrote a poem about a woman in pain.
5. I imagined what Anarcha might say if I were able to interview her.
6. I inserted survey statistics on the perceptions medical students have about Black people and their alleged resilience to pain.
7. I included a flash memoir piece about pain.
8. I used lyrics from a song about pain. I incorporated all of the above bits into a lyric essay. It is entitled “The Herstory of Pain” and is forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review.
In the January/February 2021 edition of Poets and Writers magazine, the feature article describes the notebooks of eight writers. Rachel Eliza Griffiths, a poet, compiles, as part of her creative process for a forthcoming book, what she calls a wall triptych of associative paraphernalia: a blue dress, photos, a hat, drawings, erasure poems, magazine clippings. It looks like a collage wall. I, too, gravitate toward things that are loosely, but intimately, associated.
One of my favorite visual art forms is the collage. I also enjoy (and have done) mosaic art work. I’ve collected interesting and colorful china that I’ve broken and used to mosaic a fireplace, steps, a bathroom sink, and mirror frames. Grout is what holds a mosaic together. The piece is connected by the colors of the individual pieces, or by the color of the grout. Sometimes, the sheer randomness of the individual pieces conveys connectivity.
As a teenager, I wrote poetry in response to events impacting my world. When the Detroit Tigers won the World Series in 1968, I lamented baseball celebrations in the wake of the 1967 Detroit uprising in a poem published by one of our local newspapers. I’ve continued centering my poetry on social justice issues, alternate histories of oppressed people, and poetry of witness. My chapbook, Picking Scabs from the Body History, was published last July, just after the murder of George Floyd. This excerpted poem was nominated for a Pushcart Prize:
I will not touch this wound will not I’ve taped my hands at night worn mittens and gloves
created internal distractions to stay as far the hell away from myself so the hurts could crust
and scab over I am a Black mother who told both children at their becoming ages what it
meant to be a Black in America; as they left the Cute age, transitioned to the Intimidating age, &
arrived at the Dangerous age-America's categories for Black youth—I read the little black book
to them at night How to Be Black and Stay Alive—my girl included—the book told you to look a
grownup in the eye; to neither smirk nor shirk nor grin when spoken to; stressed the importance
of enunciating and articulating the King’s English every day; to respect their elders; to neither
lie nor cheat; to say 'yes sir' to an officer; and understand that milk is a food not a beverage
January 2021Inspiration for Writing in the New Year
January is the traditional time to set resolutions. I’m not a huge fan of the typically austere New Year’s resolution (go to the gym more, lose twenty pounds, etc.). January and February are cold and dark and hard enough, even in a non-pandemic year, without also having to worry about giving up sugar or abandoning other pleasures. But I do like setting specific goals for what I’d like to accomplish in my writing.
Last January, I bought a black leather-bound Moleskine notebook, the thickest one available. I wanted to reduce some of the anxiety that had built up around writing, so on the first page I set my intentions on that for the coming year. I decided to start each day with three free-associative “morning pages” (a strategy made famous by Julia Cameron), and then end each day with three things I noticed and was grateful for. A year later, I can read back over those intentions to see where I lived up to them and where I deviated. I didn’t write morning pages every single day, but I often did. The notebook is filled, and I’m buying another for 2021.
In the coming year, I’d like to write a twenty-page chapter of my new novel each month, for the next six months or until I finish a draft. Half the magic of this kind of intention setting is just thinking about what I want to do with my writing, being as specific as I can. Then I can figure out how best to support myself in meeting it. For instance, I’ve formed a writing trio with two friends who are at similar stages in their own novels. Knowing that I have to hand in ten pages to them twice a month keeps me moving forward. I have our meetings and their pages to look forward to. And as the year goes on, I can check back in with the goals that I committed to paper, adjusting them if need be.
As writers, we share a lot of commonalities in terms of what inspires us, and what gets us to sit down and keep producing work. That said, different writers have also discovered different tricks that work for them in particular. For example, I like to write a little star on my calendar next to every day of the week that I write. I sometimes also make a note of the number of words that I wrote, especially if I’m trying to meet a specific goal like finishing a chapter or working to a certain target in a manuscript by a given date. Seeing what I did acknowledges my accomplishment and inspires me to do it again.
I’m always fascinated to hear writers talk about their unique processes, creative methods, and habits. As we enter 2021, I thought you might benefit from hearing from some of our writing instructors about theirs. So I asked each of them this question: “What is the best piece of advice that you have to offer your fellow writers?” I hope that their responses inspire you as you enter this new year and think about what you want to accomplish on the page in 2021.
Happy new year, and happy writing!
Malena Watrous, Online Creative Writing Lead Instructor and Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator
“Sometimes we can be hard on ourselves as writers when we are not writing. We have an idea in our heads of how many hours we should be working or how many pages we should be producing. But many writers write while holding down jobs or juggling family commitments and, inevitably, there will be times you just can't get to the computer. During those times, remember that the writing is still happening in some part of your subconscious, that your brain is still working out scenes or characters or a sticky point in the plot, and that when you do finally get back to the page—which you will, I promise—the time away will prove to have been invaluable, providing you with the necessary perspective you needed. So take the pressure off yourself and let lulls happen as a natural part of the writing process.”
“If I’m feeling blocked or unmotivated, I make a deal with myself that I’m just going to open up a document and look at it for five minutes. I don’t have to do anything to it, just look at it. Turns out I can never resist messing with something, and then before I know it it’s been an hour.”
“Find the connection between your current thoughts or emotions and your book. Consider what you're struggling with, or what the world is, right now. Does this relate in any way to the struggles of your characters? Fiction can create a bridge, imbuing your old project with new urgency.”
“When you find that you're withholding crucial information from the reader, consider the pros and cons of not putting this information on the page. Sometimes there are clear benefits, for example an intentional, specific mystery. Other times, your story would improve by a more open telling. Think of the reader as a friend you can trust with your character's deepest secrets. The reader is excellent at keeping secrets.”
—Lauren Kate Morphew
“Try editing out of sequence. It forces you to ponder each scene's/chapter's contribution to the overall cohesive whole to edit without thinking about causality, arc, adjacent material, etc. You analyze that one scene's/chapter's role and then you can finesse from there. For example, tomorrow morning, edit chapter 17, then chapter 4, then work on chapter 31. Either those chapters are accomplishing their intentions or they aren't. I like remix strategies like this, as they are a concrete tool to tell if something works in its current iteration.”
“Remember that the author of a completed novel is a composite of the writer over many, many days of writing. So for any given writing session, just focus on doing your part, knowing you’re part of a much greater collective ‘you’ that’s smart enough to finish this book.”
“Writing is always more fluid—or more possible—for me if I'm also meditating. When I'm feeling dragged down by a project, approaching it as though it's a game I'm playing can make the work feel lighter and freer. I give myself a lot of leeway to follow my curiosity. If I get a wild idea or impulse, I spend an hour or two following it, whether I expect it to end up in the piece or not. Some interesting and unexpected openings can appear that way and renew my sense of surprise and excitement in the project.” —Rachel Smith
“When it’s really hard to write, we can say to ourselves, ‘It doesn’t matter if I make anything good today. But I will be happier for the rest of the day if I do this than if I don’t.’ We can edit the work from the day before, write a bad paragraph or page, make notes. It can help to set a timer for twenty minutes or even ten. Usually if we get started, we can keep going.”
December 2020Most people will agree that 2020 has been enormously trying as we endure the tremendous upheaval, of the election (and its aftermath) and the ever-rising COVID-19 case count. At Stanford Continuing Studies, one thing that gives us heart is that our creative writing classes have continued to fill with students who seem more eager and grateful than ever to have this outlet—a place to focus away from the news, an opportunity to grow when their circumstances might be circumscribed by the pandemic. For the December Writer’s Spotlight, I asked our long-time Continuing Studies instructor Caroline Goodwin (who teaches our course "Writing Through Struggle," among others) for a piece about how to write in troubled times. She came up with this essay, the title of which is also her number-one piece of advice for writers.
Online Creative Writing Lead Instructor and Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator
by Caroline Goodwin
“The mystery that is writing. The way a story begins…a line of a song that won’t leave your head, an article in the newspaper that strikes a chord, a fragment of conversation…, a repeating dream.” This is part of what keeps me showing up at the page, through thick and thin, as it does the acclaimed children’s author Jane Yolen. I can still see the cover of her 1987 picture book Owl Moon, with its blue-black snowscape and bundled-up human figures, perhaps because it resonates with my Alaska childhood and perhaps because it touches my grief about losing my father in 2018. And I still often turn to Yolen’s 2003 book Take Joy: A Book for Writers, which includes a chapter called “The Mystery That Is Writing.” I think that maybe if it weren’t for the joy that’s part of the process, it might all be too difficult, our current human situation too much to bear.
Joy. The prospect of possessing what one desires. Bliss. A state of happiness or felicity. Isn’t this too much to expect? What about “opening a vein” when we sit down at the page, not to mention the pandemic, police brutality, climate disruption, etc.? (I will not continue…) How can we justify the time and attention it takes to attend to our creative work when the world is collapsing? I am asking these questions here because they are questions I ask myself every day, and have been asking myself for decades. And they have the same answers today as they’ve always had: Yes, and. Take joy. Make a little progress anyway. Exercise your voice and claim your space.
I’ll admit that at the start of COVID, I appreciated the shutdown. No commute, no carpool, no rushing out the door first thing. An hour at my desk in the morning? Heaven! Obsessed with the COVID numbers, I invented a form for a series of poems I now call Matanuska, after the great river of south-central Alaska. Each poem would take as its title a moment’s worldwide COVID death count, the common and scientific names of a wild plant, and the exact date and time of the death count. Each poem would repeat, three times, a line of text from Janice J. Schofield’s Discovering Wild Plants: Alaska, Western Canada, The Northwest. This is a book I often turn to for poem ideas (I love the sounds of plant names), but what I somehow hadn’t realized was that the book actually does not belong to me. It belongs to my late husband Nick, who died in a mountain biking accident in 2016, and it’s full of notes and highlights from his days as an undergraduate student in environmental science. So my writing time turned into grieving time, and then into joy time as I discovered the hearts of the poems taking shape. For me, when I find these weird connections, it’s a gift, a gift that circumstance cannot take away, as long as I do my part by showing up and allowing the work to unfold.
I encourage my students to find ways to prioritize their writing time, however it works for them, and no matter what. I find that, for myself, when I can get that time at my desk in the morning, even fifteen minutes to read, I’m just better at the rest of my life. I’m a better activist and mom and teacher, catching and appreciating those moments of joy. Writing is messy, life is messy and fractured, and it’s part of our job as writers to capture and celebrate that fact.
November 2020This month we shine The Writer’s Spotlight on a former Continuing Studies creative writing student, Samantha Rajaram, whose novel The Company Daughters was published in October. Congratulations, Samantha! Asked to share “one piece of advice” for her fellow Continuing Studies students aspiring to complete and finish novels of their own, Samantha wrote about the value of a research trip she took to Amsterdam, where she imagined herself into her protagonist’s shoes and walked in her footsteps.
Online Creative Writing Lead Instructor and Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator
In July 2015 I took a trip to Amsterdam to research for my debut historical novel The Company Daughters.
My novel is about two young women who fall in love while on a ten-month journey to Batavia (now Jakarta) as part of an actual 17th-century Dutch anti-miscegenation policy. It was an admittedly ambitious project for a newbie writer without an MFA. I knew next to nothing about the Dutch as an Indian American, and this was the first book I’d written. Research would be critical to creating a believable world for my characters.
I’d saved up for my trip to Amsterdam, and looked for a comfortable Airbnb not too far from Dam Centre. I’d been there once before with my parents as a teenager, and seen the tourist sites—Anne Frank’s house,
the canals. But this was a different sort of trip. I was alone, and I was here to work.
I recall arriving, and the adrenaline rush of not knowing how to get anywhere. I took a cab driven by an old man with a very long beard who barely spoke to me. I tried not to read an inauspicious outcome into this first experience in Amsterdam, but I was all nerves. I’d been married for a long time and was used to traveling with my spouse. Now I was divorced and traveling alone, and with an admittedly odd purpose. I was looking for my protagonist, Jana Beil.
On those first days I subsisted on stroopwafels, those buttery, caramel Dutch sandwich cookies, and Milka chocolate bars. The occasional apple. I missed my kids. I was lonely. Was I crazy to be here? I knew no one. I was overwhelmed by the city—its tall, fit inhabitants racing by in the bicycle lanes as I trudged some 18,000 steps a day through the city, the beauty of the canals, my uncanny tendency to get lost within minutes. I was afraid to talk to people or order food, afraid of being distracted from my task of understanding this world.
Traveling for the sake of my writing seemed a ridiculous idea. When friends asked why Amsterdam, I was honest. I am writing a book, I said. But even as I explained I found myself doubting my intentions. Was I really going to do this? Why not just find a nice stretch of beach in Hawaii and take a break from motherhood and work? I was certainly exhausted. And a poolside cocktail sounded lovely.
But my protagonist, Jana, insisted. As I explored Amsterdam, I would get inklings of my main character. This is a street she would walk down. This is a house she would like. Here is the door she knocked on, looking for work, and her favorite little bridge. Amsterdam reverberates with its distant history—its narrow brick homes and labyrinthine canals, and the glowing still-life paintings in the magnificent Rijksmuseum, breathed life into the vague story coalescing in my mind.
Jana talked to me throughout my journey. She told me to watch the trees in Erasmuspark as the wind blew through them. As I studied the furniture collection at the Rijksmuseum, she pointed out which chairs her employer kept in the dining room. And when I felt lonely, I felt her most of all—her loneliness, her desire to understand. Which mirrored my own.
And five years later, my debut novel has arrived. Despite all my doubts, Jana pushed me forward, along with the guidance and encouragement of so many friends and mentors, beginning with Stanford’s own Sara Houghteling.
So here is my advice: do that preposterous thing. Listen to your characters. Live their lives. While researching a different novel, I traveled to Marseille and lay down on the floor of the St. Charles railway station so I could know how the floor of the platform felt, smelled, and looked. Crazy? Absolutely. Necessary? For me, yes. As before, I surrendered to my characters’ stories and voices, and allowed myself to believe in their urgency, and in their right to exist in the world.
And now they do.
October 2020This month, we are delighted to celebrate the recent publication of our instructor Caroline Leavitt’s twelfth novel, With or Without You. Caroline’s novels include Pictures of You (a New York Times bestseller, now in a tenth-anniversary edition), Is This Tomorrow, and Cruel Beautiful World. A book critic for People and AARP, she is a former New York Foundation of the Arts Fellow in Fiction and was a finalist in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in Pilot and Feature films. Her work has appeared in New York, “Modern Love” in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Lit Hub, The Manifest-Station, Salon, and elsewhere. For many years, Caroline has taught a popular online writing course through Stanford Continuing Studies, “Writing the Novel From Back to Front.” Visit her at www.carolineleavitt.com.
Caroline generously gave us a short essay with a salient piece of advice for her fellow writers and writing students encapsulated in the title.
Malena Watrous, Online Creative Writing Lead Instructor and Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator
Write About What Haunts You
by Caroline Leavitt
The first thing I always tell writers in my Stanford Continuing Studies creative writing courses is to write about some question that is haunting you, some issue you don’t have an answer to. That delving deep is really what will make your novel universal, rather than trying to write to a market that is often cookie cutter. So what was haunting me into writing With or Without You?
Coma. My own coma.
I was in a three-week medical coma after the birth of my son and given memory blockers so I wouldn’t remember the procedures or the pain. When I awakened, my mind was blank—disturbingly blank, actually—but my body remembered. Anything would trigger me. A woman wearing a striped shirt might set off a panic attack because the stripes were the same as the stripes on my hospital curtain. A smell of lotion would make me break into a cold sweat. And I didn’t know why.
So I wrote about it, in my first coma novel, Coming Back to Me (I know, I know! There are two!), where a woman just like me went through coma after the birth of her child. But it didn’t really make me feel better, and I didn’t feel unhaunted. Years passed, and finally, five years ago, I went to a therapist because I was still having trouble sleeping. “You wrote the wrong book,” she told me. She advised me to write another coma novel, but this time to make the person as totally different from me as I could, so this way I could really live another life, and process my trauma through another person’s experience.
I created Stella. Unlike me, she remembered everything about her coma. Unlike me, she emerged with a different personality and a startling new talent. (Fun fact: in my research on comas, I found that the brain does rewrite and refire, and people often do emerge speaking fluent Mandarin or being a violin virtuoso.) As I began to live through Stella, I began to be less haunted, less triggered, and actually more filled with a sense of wonder about what the brain could do and about life itself.
To my surprise, this very personal book I wrote touched a universal nerve. I was on National Public Radio talking about transcendence through my coma. Features were written about me in The Washington Post and The Daily Beast. The book was recommended by the Good Morning America Book Club and received positive reviews from Bustle, People, AARP, POPSUGAR, the Minneapolis StarTribune, Lit Hub, and the San Francisco Chronicle. I was even asked to write a column for Psychology Today!
So writers, remember, when you are writing: Be haunted. Go deep. Get personal. It’s a gift both to yourself and to your readers.
September 2020This month, we are delighted to spotlight the publication of our beloved instructor Ron Nyren's debut novel The Book of Lost Light, which received Black Lawrence Press's 2019 Big Moose Prize and is forthcoming in November 2020.
His fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, North American Review, Glimmer Train, Mississippi Review, Fourteen Hills, Able Muse, The Dalhousie Review, and 100 Word Story, and his stories have been shortlisted for the O. Henry Awards and the Pushcart Prize. Ron is the co-author, with his spouse and writing partner Sarah Stone (another beloved instructor of ours), of Deepening Fiction: A Practical Guide for Intermediate and Advanced Writers, and he was an editor of Furious Fictions: The Magazine of Short-Short Stories.
A former Stegner Fellow, Ron has been an instructor in fiction writing for Stanford Continuing Studies since 2011 and has taught in the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing since 2017. I recently talked with Ron about his forthcoming novel, his creative writing process, and his number-one piece of advice for aspiring writers.
Malena Watrous, Online Writing Lead Instructor, Stanford Continuing Studies
Malena Watrous: How did you first come up with the idea behind The Book of Lost Light?
Ron Nyren: The original idea—what if someone grew up being photographed every day of their life?—came to me in the early 1990s, perhaps inspired by seeing Eadweard Muybridge’s* photos of boxers in motion. I first wrote it as a short short story set in contemporary times, but at the time I didn’t know the purpose of the project or have a sense of why it mattered.
Years later, when I was thinking of turning a different short story into a novel—a story with a photographer as a minor character—I remembered that short short, and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me to set the novel in the early days of photography. I then thought of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the novel grew from there to become the story of a boy raised by his obsessive photographer father and his impulsive young cousin. After the quake, they take refuge with a group of displaced artists and actors. As our own times darkened, the book became more about resilience and what it takes to rebuild our lives after disasters.
MW: Many of my favorite novels took a long time to come into existence, and I know that this novel fits that description. Please share a bit about the process of writing it and the different iterations it may have taken in revision.
RN: First I spent a year writing notes on what might happen in the novel. In January 2001, having settled on very little, I decided to just start writing the novel itself and see what happened. I rewrote the first eighty pages too many times, telling myself I was getting in touch with the voice of my narrator, Joseph, the boy who grows up photographed.
Many characters and plotlines appeared, only to be pruned away and replaced. Because of that, it’s a palimpsest of a novel now, with many of the characters informed by previous iterations of themselves in other guises. I’m a little bemused that it took me so long—the current version of the novel is more or less one I finished in 2017—but the characters remained alive for me that whole time, no matter how baffled I was along the way, so I kept going.
MW: Having finished and now published your novel, is there anything you would do differently if you could go back in time?
RN: Could I take the final manuscript back in time with me and just hand it to my younger self?
MW: I think many published authors feel that way! Let’s talk a bit about your writing in general. What is your creative writing life like? How do you compose or divide up your day? What strategies or tools have proven effective in staying artistically vibrant while also managing other professional angles?
RN: My day job is writing about architecture and urban design for design firms and related publications. I try to set aside the first half of the morning for fiction writing, then turn to professional writing for the rest of the day. Having a dailyish routine helps, because it takes the pressure off any given day—the blank page is less intimidating when I know that if today’s output isn’t useful, tomorrow’s might be.
My goal is to write fiction most days of most weeks of most months. Since the pandemic struck, I haven’t had the bandwidth—the brainwidth?—to spend as much time on fiction writing as I used to. But even during those periods when I’m derailed by work or apocalypses, I look for moments each day to daydream about the possibilities for in-progress stories—say, while washing the dishes—so when I do sit down to write, I have more to work with.
MW: As co-author with your wife, Sarah Stone, of Deepening Fiction, a textbook about the writing process, what is your number-one piece of advice for aspiring authors? Or more than one if you can't pick a favorite.
RN: Read lots—contemporary and ancient, short and long, within your genre and also outside, from your own country and from all over the world. If you’re writing a novel, pick three “mentor novels” from among your favorites to reread so you can think about how they begin and end, what territories they take on, what makes them urgent and memorable, what qualifies as “enough” to happen or change or be revealed in a given chapter. Allow your book to unfold itself to you as you write it: the process may go quickly or slowly, but there’s a great satisfaction in making late discoveries, adding new layers, and figuring out what your subconscious was up to all along.
* Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) was known for his pioneering photography studying animals and humans in motion; these include his famous snapshot of a galloping horse commissioned by Leland Stanford and the boxers mentioned above by Ron Nyren.
August 2020Sindya Bhanoo has been a reporter for The New York Times, where she was the longtime “Observatory” columnist, and The Washington Post, where she is a frequent contributor. She received a Master of Journalism degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers.
Her reporting has received support and recognition from numerous organizations, including the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the New York Press Club, the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting, the Asian American Journalists Association, Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT.
Her fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, Granta, and The Masters Review, and her work has received support from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.
I spoke with Sindya recently about her experiences as a student in the Stanford Continuing Studies Program, her dual experience and interests in journalism and fiction writing, and her recent writing.
Stanford Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator and author of Thieves I've Known
Tom Kealey: Sindya, as a journalist for The Washington Post, you've been covering a variety of impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, including features on parents, foster families, expat retirees, and independent bookstores. What has this been like?
Sindya Bhanoo: The whole experience has been surreal.
On March 3—Super Tuesday—an editor from The Washington Post called and asked me to go to polling locations in Austin, Texas, where I live, to find out whether voters and poll volunteers had concerns about the coronavirus.
Not a single person did.
Three days later, South by Southwest (Austin’s annual media and music conference and festival) was cancelled because of fears of the virus spreading and I, like many other reporters, found myself pulled headfirst into covering a global pandemic.
What has been most striking to me throughout this time is how much access to resources makes a difference in how each of us experiences this moment. The virus does not discriminate—we are all fair game—but how comfortably we can get through this time varies. What we can provide for our children during this time varies. Some of us can stay home, some of us cannot afford to. That may seem like an obvious observation, but as a reporter, I see it in a painfully clear way.
TK: We’re interested to hear about your pivot toward fiction writing. You graduated from the Michener Center for Writers and have had a number of short stories published. Could you take us through the early development of your story “Malliga Homes,” published in Granta and recipient of the Disquiet Prize for Fiction 2020, and talk about how the creation of a fictional work is significantly different or similar from creating a journalistic story?
SB: Fiction and reporting are both forms of storytelling.
In my reporting work, I start with an event, a fact, or a collection of facts and work from there to find the right people—the right characters—who can help me tell the story.
With fiction, it is different. Almost always, I start with an image. In my story “Malliga Homes,” it was an image of a husband putting his hand over his wife’s hand when he wanted her to calm down. The image was a memory. The wife was a widow and she was recalling the times when he did this.
The story is set in a retirement community in southern India where many of the residents are upper-middle-class Indians whose children have moved away and settled abroad. I’d heard about these retirement communities from my mother, and I was able to do some research to build the world and make it feel authentic. But the kernel that I started with was that image of the lonely widow.
TK: A number of Stanford Continuing Studies students are considering the idea of an MFA in Creative Writing. Could you talk about your experience at the Michener Center for Writers and how that helped you develop as a fiction writer and creative artist?
SB: My experience at the Michener Center was immersive, productive, and immensely fulfilling. I loved it.
The program offers three years of full funding with no teaching duties. I have two young children—our son was just one year old when I started the program—so having no teaching obligations was an incredible gift.
It was a chance to read, write, talk about books and think about what my interests and obsessions as a writer of fiction are. I have a bachelor’s degree in computer science and then I became a journalist so I had little exposure to literary fiction until I arrived at the Michener Center.
That said, not everyone can take the time off to pursue an MFA, even a fully funded one. And it is not necessary. A similar experience can be self-crafted by the savvy writer. Courses like the ones Continuing Studies offers are of such high quality, with wonderful instructors.
TK: Before the Michener Center, you were a student in Stanford Continuing Studies writing workshops. Can you talk about that experience and how that shaped your work and career?
SB: If it were not for Stanford Continuing Studies, I would not be writing fiction today. It is as simple as that.
When my daughter was a baby, I cut back on my reporting work to spend time with her. Just as she was about to turn two, I began to get cabin fever.
I lived in California at the time, and a friend casually mentioned that Stanford had great writing courses through its Continuing Studies Program. I looked it up immediately and signed up for an evening course with Sara Houghteling.
That class, and Sara, changed my life. It was my first workshop experience, which was terrifying, and my first attempt at writing a short story. It was exhilarating to have my story workshopped. I had readers! Somehow it made my work come to life, to have people discussing these characters that previously existed only in my head.
A few weeks later, I ran into Sara at the park near my home. Our kids are the same age. There, as the kids played in the sandbox, she told me that I had to keep writing.
I took that to heart, but there was something about hearing this from her at the park that made me believe it was possible. In class, I saw her as this glamorous novelist, something that felt entirely out of my reach. At the park, she was just another person, a mom like me. That was the first time I realized that writers are actual people—people who buy groceries and take out the trash and, well, take their kids to Rinconada Park to play in the sandbox.
I kept writing. I took a course with you. I loved it. I used the stories I wrote in those Continuing Studies courses to apply to MFA programs. One of those stories is in my forthcoming collection.
And I am still in touch with Sara. She has been a mentor and a friend as I’ve worked to find my way in the literary world. I trust her completely and am so grateful to have her support.
TK: What have you been working on most recently, and what interests you most about that work-in-progress?
SB: These days my focus has been on reporting. I’m editing a special project for Mission Local, funded by the Pulitzer Center, that follows the lives of Latinx immigrants and undocumented Americans living in San Francisco’s Mission District as they navigate the pandemic.
With the little time that is left over, I’m writing more short stories and working on a novel. I am especially interested in the movement of people between India and the United States, and the gains and losses that come with it.
To learn more about Sindya Bhanoo and her work, please visit:
- Sindya Bhanoo's website
- Short story, "Malliga Homes," in Granta
- Articles in The New York Times "Observatory: Dispatches from the world of scientific research"
- Short story, "His Holiness," in American Literary Review
- Mission COVID
Eavan Boland: Groundbreaking Poet, Teacher, and Mentor“Poetry begins where language starts: in the shadows and accidents of one person’s life.”
—A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet, Eavan Boland
Eavan Boland—scholar, professor, and one of the world’s most renowned and influential poets—died following a stroke in her Dublin home on April 27, 2020. Boland was 75.
There is no way to overstate Eavan Boland’s impact on Stanford University, the Creative Writing Program, Stanford Continuing Studies, and thousands of students, Wallace Stegner Fellows, and lecturers over the years. She was a fierce and devoted advocate of so many aspiring and emerging writers.
Boland was the director of Stanford’s Creative Writing Program for twenty-one years. Of the many enduring legacies from her life and work, one is particular to Stanford: her insistence that any undergraduate or adult student who wanted to take a creative writing course should be able to do so. She was one of the main drivers in expanding creative writing offerings at the undergraduate and Continuing Studies levels.
Eavan Boland was born in Dublin in 1944 to Frederick Boland, the first Irish Ambassador to the United Kingdom and the United Nations, and Frances Kelly, a talented and well-known artist and painter. She spent her childhood in Dublin, London, and New York before attending Trinity College Dublin for her undergraduate degree. In 1969 she married Kevin Casey, who survives her, as do her two daughters, Eavan and Sarah, and her four grandchildren: Ella, Jack, Julia, and Cian.
Boland’s poetry explores many themes, including the Irish national identity and the role of women in Irish history. Her first book of poetry, New Territory, was published in 1967, and she followed with over twenty volumes of poetry and prose including the celebrated The Lost Land, Domestic Violence, and A Woman Without a Country.
“I used to work out of notebooks, and I learned when I had young children that you can always do something,” she told Stanford Magazine in 2002. “If you can’t do a poem, you can do a line. And if you can’t do a line, you can do an image—and that pathway that leads you along, in fragments, becomes astonishingly valuable.”
Other works by Eavan Boland include Against Love Poetry, An Origin Like Water, In a Time of Violence, and Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time. Her work has received numerous accolades including a PEN Award, the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, and the Corrington Award for Literary Excellence. She also received many honorary degrees, including from University College Dublin, Colby College, and Trinity. In 2016 she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Boland wrote often about the creative process of a writer: “I loved the illusion, the conviction, the desire—whatever you want to call it—that the words were agents rather than extensions of reality. That they made my life happen, rather than just recording it happening.”
And from The Lost Land:
“This is what language is:
a habitual grief. A turn of speech
for the everyday and ordinary abrasion
of losses such as this:
just enough to be a scar
And heals just enough to be a nation.”
Boland believed strongly that everyone should have access to creative writing and worked in partnership with Stanford Continuing Studies to make that a reality for writers in the Bay Area and beyond. A great friend to Continuing Studies throughout her life, Boland co-taught “Short Masterpieces of Irish Literature” in Winter 2020 with Stanford colleagues and friends Charles Junkerman, Dean of Continuing Studies, Emeritus; William Chace, Honorary Professor of English, Emeritus; and Rush Rehm, Professor of Theater and Performance Studies and of Classics. Boland also taught “A Fiery Shorthand: Twentieth-Century Irish Literature” in 1996. She was also a dynamic participant in many Continuing Studies campus programs over the years, including Stanford Saturday University and “Adrienne Rich: A Celebration of Her Poems” in May 2019.
Boland also mentored and supported a variety of Stegner Fellows who have gone on to teach in Stanford Continuing Studies, including current instructors Caroline Goodwin, John Evans, Matthew Siegel, Angela Pneuman, Scott Hutchins, and Austin Smith.
Eavan Boland will be greatly missed by writers, readers, and admirers throughout the university and the world. Her latest collection of poetry, The Historians, will be published in October 2020 by W.W. Norton.
For more information about Eavan Boland, we recommend:
• “Eavan Boland, Outstanding Irish Poet and Academic”
• “11 Eavan Boland Poems to Remember Her By”
• “Eavan Boland: A Transatlantic Tribute” (YouTube video)
Stanford Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator and author of Thieves I’ve Known. Tom worked closely with Eavan Boland in the Stanford Creative Writing Program for sixteen years.
From Writer to Author: Navigating the Twisty Path to PublicationMalena Watrous, Online Lead Writing Instructor, Stanford Continuing Studies
The difference between a writer and an author is that the latter has published a book. But while this may be true, most people who want to make that transition and get a book published have a lot of questions about how exactly the process works.
In my experience as lead instructor for the Stanford Continuing Studies Online Writing program, I have had countless students come to me with the same questions:
How do you get an agent? What information should go in a query? Do I need an MFA? Are summer conferences or writing residencies useful? If I do get offered a book deal, what’s the process of working with an editor like? Should you ever pay an agent? If I want to self-publish, how do I get my book into stores or reviewed in papers? What is the role of a book publicist? Is social media important if I want to be an author?
But while I hear these questions over and over, most of them don’t have one simple answer. Books are written and brought into the world in a variety of different ways, with a variety of different results. But that isn’t to say that you can’t get some guidance as you make important choices on the path to becoming a published author, which is why I designed the online course, "From Writer to Author: Navigating the Twisty Path to Publication."
Every week during the course, you will hear from an author and a member of their “team,” someone who helped their book to come out in its final shape and find readers. You will have the opportunity to read each author’s book ahead of time and then come up with questions for that writer and their “teammate” in advance of a scheduled Zoom meeting that both will attend. You will hear the two of them in conversation with each other, discussing the process of working together as well as answering your questions.
Last year, when I taught this course for the first time, students reported that they learned a tremendous amount about the publishing process, not in some dry or abstract way but by participating in these conversations and hearing many great stories from our visitors, who offered a behind-the-scenes look at how their excellent new books came to be. The authors are also more than willing to discuss craft, not just business. You’ll be able to ask questions about why they made specific choices regarding point of view, structure, plot moves, and anything else that stands out. You can find out where the ideas for their books came from, and what may have changed along the way as they revised. This is a great course for avid readers, anyone who loves good books, and aspiring authors.
The visiting writers this summer will include Elizabeth Wetmore (Valentine), Stephanie Soileau (Last One Out Shut Off the Lights), Emily Carpenter (The Weight of Lies), Adrienne Brodeur (Wild Game), and Lysley Tenorio (The Son of Good Fortune). For more information or to enroll, please visit "From Writer to Author: Navigating the Twisty Path to Publication" (starts June 22). Note: Course link removed as the course is now closed/full; please check back when the course is next offered.
May 2020This month we are thrilled to spotlight the publication of Diane Byington’s second novel, If She Had Stayed. She wrote and published her first novel, Who She Is, shortly after finishing the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing (abbreviated as OWC) in 2012. In addition to writing novels, Diane (pictured left) has been a college professor, psychotherapist, and executive coach, and she also has raised goats for fiber and enjoys spinning and weaving. We talked with Diane about where the idea for this latest novel came from, what she got from the certificate program, and advice she might have for aspiring novelists.
Malena Watrous Online Writing Lead Instructor, Stanford Continuing Studies
Malena Watrous: Diane, congratulations on the publication of your fun and imaginative second novel! Can you talk a little bit about where the idea for this one came from?
Diane Byington: Thanks so much for your kind words. It’s great fun to have two novels out. The idea for If She Had Stayed came while I was shopping for a publisher for my first novel, Who She Is. I wasn’t sure I’d ever find a publisher for it, so I decided to write something that would be fun and outrageous. I got the idea when I was noodling over the thought of what my life would have been like if I’d done something different when I was younger. Of course, one can’t actually do that—there are no second chances in life. But then I thought, “What if we could?” and the plot sort of rolled out in my mind right then. I wrote the first draft during a NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), when I participated with a group of other OWC graduates. It was so much fun to just write and write without editing. I finished the first draft six weeks after I started, but then there were numerous drafts after that one. The overall story didn’t change, though.
MW: You wrote your first novel while you were an OWC student. How did the process of writing your second novel while outside of the program compare?
DB: The first one was so much fun because I had faculty and other students available to work with me on it. For the second one, I was on my own. I did have a critique group and beta readers, but it wasn’t the same. It was much more fun to write with a group, with a tutor at the end who helped me polish the book. But that’s reality. One has to be able to work alone at some time.
MW: What did you learn from the process of writing the first one that served you in the second one? How did your writing group and early readers impact this book as you wrote it?
DB: When I wrote the second book, I knew I could finish it. I didn’t have to wonder if I had a book in me, because I knew I did. That is a huge advantage, and I credit the OWC program for helping me develop that confidence. I can’t say the actual writing was any easier (sorry, folks), but I knew I could do it. I am a member of a great critique group and I have several beta readers who are willing to read my books. I recommend that your students form a group to help each other after the program ends, because by that time, they will know each other really well and have an automatic critique group.
MW: Your first novel was strictly realism, whereas this one involved time travel. How was the process of writing speculative fiction different for you? Talk about the challenges and pleasures of this imaginative leap.
DB: Oh, gosh, I don’t think I would undertake another time travel novel anytime soon. It’s much, much harder than writing realism. There are so many things to keep track of, such as what would happen if the older and younger people meet in the past, and how would the younger version of the protagonist speak differently from her older self. I could go on and on. I also brought in Nikola Tesla as the character who discovered time travel, and I had to read deeply about his life in order to try to copy his style of writing. It was a huge undertaking, but I was cut loose from needing to have everything be based on reality. That part was loads of fun.
MW: Any tips for our aspiring novelists?
DB: I learned more during my time in OWC than I have at any other time in my life. I ended up cutting back on my day job and dropping out of most of my social life so I could focus on this wonderful program, because I knew that I probably would never again have the luxury of spending two years writing. For anyone enrolled, I hope you make the most of it. It’s not easy to write an entire novel, and you should celebrate when you finish the program with that novel in hand. I wish you all the best as you work toward getting that novel published. Don’t give up!
April 2020This month, I want to spotlight the accomplishments of two Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing students who have had recent news worth celebrating concerning their writing.
Amie Wolf’s story “Large Knuckles” was recently chosen as the Narrative magazine “story of the week.” Amie (pictured left) is a second-year student in the certificate program, working on her first novel. Click here to read Amie’s story (sign in free but required).
I also want to celebrate the accomplishment of Trudie Scott, who completed the program several years ago. Last year, Trudie placed second in the Memoir category of the annual Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference contest. This past January, Trudie participated in our Creative Writing Retreat at Djerassi, where she worked on a series of nature essays. With Trudie’s permission, we are sharing one of those essays here.
Online Writing Lead Instructor, Stanford Continuing Studies
by Trudie Scott
I suspect I was a wild child. After reading Enid Blyton's books, I renamed myself George after the lead character in her “Famous Five” series. I insisted in fourth grade that everyone call me by that name. As third child, I was pretty much left on my own, and at an early age I took to wandering the hills around my house. Later, the ridges would lead me to what we in our neighborhood called the mountain, Mount Tamalpais. I was small even at the age of eight with short brown hair, and a signature Giants’ baseball hat turned backward on my head. I eschewed dresses and, to my mother’s horror, wore nothing but jeans.
Being alone most of the time, I started talking to trees, first the oaks and later the redwoods in a fairy ring that grew in our yard. I still remember telling my parents that the trees answered, each in a different voice. When they chose to speak, the oaks did so with a sort of deep rumbling, the redwoods with something that sounded more like a hum. I remember my parents laughingly asking me, "What did they say?" I found that a silly question. "I don't know, as I can't understand them, but I will.” To this day, I still talk with the trees, and I haven't yet figured out what they say to me, but I know they listen, and somehow, when I touch the bark of a tree, I hear something akin to sound.
As an adult, I fell for an enormous oak tree that grew near the wetlands on a trail I often walked. I know it to be an ancient tree as I have measured its circumference. I named it Grandfather Tree. Almost every day, I would visit, putting my hand on its rough bark, noticing its leaves and twisted branches, and observing what had recently slept beneath it. Until the morning of April 6, 2016, when I couldn't get up off the bedroom floor. Crawling on my belly under coyote bushes, I had followed a trail to find my foxes’ den. I did discover their den in a pine tree, of all places, but the bad news was that during my search I was bitten by a tick that carried Lyme disease.
It would be months before I would see my tree again. At first I lost the use of my leg due to treatment for the Lyme disease. After the rehab hospital, and physical therapy, I began to walk awkwardly, but walk. One day I left the wheelchair and walker behind and started toward my beloved tree. It took weeks for me to be able to walk the mile there, but it was my goal. Finally, I succeeded. I remember putting my forehead against his ancient bark, my arms around the trunk as far as they could go, and thanking my beloved friend for his inspiration and kindness. I felt an answer deep from his core, a rich bass resonating beneath my hands.
It was still dark when I left the house my husband and I had just moved into, the original schoolhouse for Point Reyes. I heard a gurgle from the fishpond that we covered each night with plywood to protect them from the raccoons. In the moonlight, I could see my fish Goldie’s slim form slipping by through a small slot in the boards. It was dark and just 46 degrees. I had what I call my Arctic Parka with me, a relic from a 6'8 boyfriend some forty years ago. It falls all the way down to my knees. To my mind, it is the best thing I got out of the relationship. Equipped with this enormous jacket, knit hat, scarf, binoculars, and journal, I was ready for anything, or so I thought.
I drove slowly up Limantour Road as it was dark, and I was already scanning ahead for critters. I was surprised to startle two or three robins who were sitting on the pavement. I slowed down, and each one flew, but I wondered what they were doing there. Eating roadkill pinecones, or scooping up insects? I don't know.
I turned off on the Muddy Hollow gravel road and was pleased to see that I was the only one there. I felt a prickle of excitement about what I might find. Even if there was nothing, there is something about being alone at daybreak that makes my heart sing.
I parked the car and started down the trail, crossing a stream on a narrow log, looking for a place that would suit. I heard an owl call in the distance and listened carefully for the answering call of its mate. Not hearing one, I worried briefly about the missing partner and then let it go. I stopped in astonishment at the appearance in the growing light of what I immediately called the ghost tree. It was a huge dead tree with gargantuan white branches hanging down like so many witches' fingers. It must have been seventy feet tall. This sight alone would have made the excursion worthwhile.
I couldn't seem to find what I felt was the right place as there was much crimson poison oak littering the steep sides of the trail. I briefly considered an alder tree above the trail seeing myself sitting in the crock of the alder’s branch, but then rejected that even though it might be amusing to see what arrived on the trail under me. I turned around and teetered back over the log across the creek—my balance has never been the same since the tick disease. Reaching the parking lot, I decided to take the Estero Trail, which headed out to Limantour Beach. Something about it had tempted me from the moment I left the car this morning. Perhaps it was a sign.
I started walking at a slow, steady pace. I scanned my surroundings and remembered that as a tracker, I should be aware of landscape from three points of view: from what I could see around me, from what a mouse would see, and lastly from an aerial view. I laughed out loud when I realized how steep the hills were on both sides of this small valley. It was a hollow or a glen. Hence the name. I always ignorantly thought of hollows as being only in Appalachia, but of course, that is not true. Down on my knees, I peered at the ground, noticing some scat from a skunk. I hoped to run across it. I love skunks. I find them cute. They have a definitive perky gait. Turning my head, I saw other game trails leading off in several directions, which had now become apparent from this perspective.
Suddenly ahead of me, I saw a flash of the rear of some animal, probably a mule deer. I looked through my field glasses—a tule elk. I knew there was a herd down here but had never seen one. I stopped and waited, tamping down my energy so as not to send up an alarm. As I continued to watch, a huge bull came up on the road with two cows behind him. He turned and looked at me. He had massive antlers. I knew that the rut was over, or I would have backed away and headed back to the car, as these animals can be very dangerous. Frankly, I was a little uncertain about what to do. He took some stiff-legged steps toward me, and I backed up again and stood still. I have watched enough deer behavior to know that his posture was asserting his dominance and alerting his family to possible danger.
I was about twelve yards away from them, but I found myself looking for somewhere to go if he charged. I thought about hiding behind one of the many alder trees. Would that work? I didn't know.
At this point, we were at a stand-off. The bull took several steps toward me, and I backed up again. I held my ground. He turned briefly and looked to his left and then moved away from me a few steps down the road. Unfazed, his cows were grazing the roadside. I didn't move. He turned around and looked at me again. Now what? I thought. Suddenly, two calves appeared from the underbrush, where I suspect they had been hiding.
Ahh, the reason for the stand-off. The bull snorted and began to herd his cows and his progeny down the road. I waited a full ten minutes before moving to give them time to make a leisurely exit.
I continued walking and felt the thrill of the encounter and eventual relief. Again, I heard the burble of the stream beside me and the songs of the white-crowned sparrows and could now peer leisurely at the flowering of the alders that resembled Buddha’s fingers. I felt a surge of joy, a recognition that this was exactly where I belonged, here alone on a trail early in the morning.
March 2020John W. Evans is the author of two memoirs, Should I Still Wish and Young Widower, and the poetry collection The Consolations. His works have received numerous prizes, including the Peace Corps Writers Award, the Foreword INDIE Silver Award, the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize, and the Trio Award.
John is currently a Draper Lecturer of Creative Nonfiction at Stanford University, where he was previously a Jones Lecturer and a Wallace Stegner Fellow. He has also taught the very popular “Writing the Memoir: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” course for many years through Stanford Continuing Studies (including upcoming in Spring 2020).
Stanford Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator and author of Thieves I’ve Known
Tom Kealey: John, you’ve written two memoirs and have taught the “Writing the Memoir” course to both undergraduates and adult students for many years now. Can you tell us about a particular book that inspired you as an early writer, and what that revealed to you about the possibilities of memoir?
John Evans: Cheryl Strayed’s essay, “The Love of My Life,” (which she later expanded into Wild) absolutely blew me away when I first read it in The Sun back in 2002. Her frankness and honesty were so surprising; her willingness to be vulnerable in one section, and then contentious in the next, all the while going headlong at the taboo of how one should grieve, and what one should feel as one grieves, were unlike anything I had ever read. I teach that essay in the first meeting of every “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” course. I find that students feel some of what I felt: liberated to explore their own experience without being too self-conscious about what they say or how they say it, and also, to begin to think about their private selves as more continuous than any identity they pick up along the way.
TK: Tell us a little more about the “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” course—what students will read, what shorter exercises they might explore, and what they’ll complete by the end of the quarter.
JE: We jump right in by writing on the first day, and at the start of every class that follows. Every writing exercise connects to the practice of craft. It can be a little dizzying to do so much reading and writing at first, but after the third week, students are using a wide vocabulary of formal craft to talk about their own writing, as well as the works of published authors. Along the way, we sketch out the sixteen-odd-century history of the memoir. Each week, I pair a couple of contemporary writers with the writer who first did something special in the form. For example, Kate Braestrup’s heartbreaking and inspiring memoir of redemption, Here If You Need Me, is read right alongside selections from Augustine’s redemptive Confessions and Joan Didion’s anti-redemption memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. By the end of the term, students will have planned, written, revised, and sought feedback on a stand-alone memoir essay or a chapter in a memoir book. I am eager and excited to engage with personal feedback and encouragement. That’s something that I think students appreciate about the course: I am always available to talk more about the work, at every step along the way.
TK: First chapters seem important to any book, but I think perhaps especially to the memoir. Could you tell us about the first chapter of your latest book, Should I Still Wish, and why you decided to enter the narrative in that particular way? Any thoughts overall on first chapters?
JE: Both of my memoirs started with very straightforward questions that I did not know the answers to. I think that’s a great place to start writing memoir: to use a question in order to write honestly toward new understanding. You may or may not get there, but you’ll at least be fully engaged along the way, and you’ll probably learn something, too. I didn’t think I would write a second memoir; I was young-ish (in my late thirties), and I had already written Young Widower. But a sentence got fixed in my head as I took Young Widower out into the world: “I left Indiana and drove toward happiness.” That seemed so happy! I couldn’t shake that sentence, and when I sat down and typed it out, I pretty soon found I had written a few dozen pages. Then I found myself writing toward a deeply unsettling idea that I did not understand. Why did I feel like my life before and after my first wife Katie’s death inspired conflicting allegiances—that I could not be faithful to the memory without disrespecting the continuing life, or the life without neglecting the memory? That required some real work. I did not always like where it led me. But I was also happy to be essentially transcribing, in great detail, some of the best moments of my early family life in my second marriage: my first son’s birth, our life in a multigenerational family home, and even some of the conversations I found myself imagining with Katie. I was happy to have a record of all of that. Many students in “Writing the Memoir” take the course because they want to transcribe some of their experiences, and make a record. I can certainly relate to that desire, having written both memoirs.
TK: Can you recall a particular scene that surprised you in your memoirs, in terms of what it revealed to you as a person looking back on those events? Any advice for students about how to dig deep in these types of scenes?
JE: Should I Still Wish takes its title from a conversation that I imagined having with Katie after my first son was born. I still feel shocked and a little ashamed at having imagined it, because the question feels very taboo to me: “Shouldn’t I still wish that you hadn’t died?” It’s an honest question, in that it reflects how conflicted I felt in that moment, to miss Katie while also feeling terrified that I might not have this life had she not died. Here’s what I have to say to students in the memoir class: you are not always writing memoir to transcribe your experiences. Sometimes, you are learning how you really feel about what has happened to you. Or, you are recording your perspective at this very present moment, which is not always the perspective that you will have later in life. Annie Dillard says something like this in her introduction to An American Childhood: if you want to remember something, don’t write it down, because what you write down will take the place of the memory. That’s certainly a risk. But the converse of that risk, I think, is worth it: if you do the writing you will have the record of your perspective today. You’ll probably want that perspective a few months or years from now.
TK: Your latest work in progress is a novel. Can you give a sneak peak into what you are exploring in that work?
JE: Oh, the novel is quite finished! Spring Past works out how good intentions can lead to terrible consequences, even when we mean well. A few years ago I tried to counsel a friend through a very different kind of grief than the one I experienced. The results were disastrous. I was pretty arrogant to think I had much to say about anyone else’s suffering. That experience humbled me. There is a vein of thinking, maybe especially here in the Bay Area, that we can use technology to “hack” fundamental human experiences like grief—to short-circuit them, and in the process, avoid pain. I’m thinking of Jonah Lerner’s writing in Wired about “forgetting pills,” the various meditation and grief apps, and some of the recent enthusiasm for psychedelics. We seem determined to do anything else except experience a complicated emotion, and then learn to live with it. Avoiding pain is as human as it gets, but when does the fear of pain cause us to lose touch with our humanity? It’s inspiring, while teaching memoir writing, to see so many different kinds of writers tackle so many different projects. A common worry among students new to “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” is that there can’t be anything new to say about personal experience, or even new ways to say it. But those students keep finding fresh inroads to their own lives. That’s wonderful. I like what a friend told me recently: that we only fail as writers when we repeat ourselves.
Sara Houghteling has been a beloved instructor for many years in the Stanford Continuing Studies Creative Writing program and is currently a visiting lecturer in the Stanford Department of English. She is also the host of Stanford Writers in Conversation, a series that brings a distinguished Stanford writer to center stage in conversation about the art and craft of writing. Sara is the author of the novel Pictures at an Exhibition, a New York Times Editor’s Choice and a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. She has received a Fulbright scholarship, an NEA fellowship, and many other awards including the Narrative Prize for her story “The Thomas Cantor.”
This is the second of a two-part conversation with Sara for The Writer’s Spotlight. The first part, which appeared in January, focused on this year's Stanford Writers in Conversation events, which will feature Namwali Serpell (February 27) and Mark Greif (April 30). In this month’s entry we talk about Sara’s own writing, teaching, and career.
Stanford Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator and author of Thieves I’ve Known
Tom Kealey: Sara, you and I have had a number of conversations throughout the years about the various drafts (early, middle, finished, and so on) of a work, and I know that you emphasize the drafting process with your students. Can you remember back to the first draft of your novel Pictures at an Exhibition? What did you know for sure in that early draft, and what were you still figuring out about Max, Rose, and their collective journey?
Sara Houghteling: I had one plot point that I knew I wanted to land on at the end of the novel—an ironic twist that would reveal itself in the final pages. And I had a version of the final line bouncing around in my head—I knew what the last word of the novel should be. Aside from that, the voice, the content, the structure all changed (rather alarmingly, probably, from my editor’s point of view). The draft of the novel that I sold was about 500 pages long, including a hundred pages of letters between characters, a clumsy attempt to shoehorn in a lot of historical information. Much of this was cut; the novel is now about half as long. As I often talk about with my students, writing scenes is a lot more work than writing summaries, so I had to work to learn to describe moments that launched plot and incorporated dialogue, interior thought, description, and setting. I’m still learning.
TK: “The Thomas Cantor” is one of my all-time favorite stories. I see something new each time I read it. In the story, you explore the real-life characters of Johann Sebastian Bach and Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, among others, and the creation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. What interested you about that composition in particular, and what did you discover in imagining it from a fiction perspective?
SH: Thanks, Tom! I was drawn to the Goldberg Variations in part because I’m at work on a long-term project, a novel, about a pianist, which I suppose is a really extended excuse to listen to as much classical piano music as possible. I love the intricate beauty of the Goldberg Variations in all the musical forms. Glenn Gould made two radically different recordings of it. In the one from 1955, he plays at a breakneck, almost maniacal tempo. In 1981, he re-recorded it, and this second version of the Variations is slow and mournful, and you can often hear Gould singing along. I suppose these two musical registers set the characters’ emotional parameters for the story.
TK: Writing about real-life people presents challenges and opportunities. As does writing about completely fictional characters. Could you talk about these challenges and opportunities (and delights and frustrations)?
SH: For “The Thomas Cantor” in particular, I knew I had to write about a Baltic German diplomat (who’d made his career at the Russian court). What I know about 18th-century Holy Roman imperial history I know only from books. But I can guess more about a character who is a successful, lifelong diplomat. He’s calculating in all that he does—that old saw about how “character is destiny.” So if my protagonist is a Machiavellian strategist to his very core, I can guess how he is going to use his tactical mind to try to outmaneuver Bach for the young prodigy Johann Goldberg’s devotion.
As for frustrations, as Henry James talks about in his famous letter to Sarah Orne Jewett, it’s a challenge to write about the 18th century with a 21st-century sensibility; I suppose that caused me to write the protagonist’s inner thoughts with more restraint.
TK: Do you think that being a parent has deepened or changed your writing in some particular way? Perhaps how you observe the world, or how you create characters?
SH: I’ve certainly found to be true what others have told me—being with children asks you to look at the world anew. On a lighter side, children’s books have a way of creeping into my imagination too, though not always in the best way. Sometimes when my children and I are reading a series, like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, I’ll start having my characters talk like Ma and Pa Ingalls. This is not ideal.
TK: Tell us more about the novel you’re working on now. What interests and excites you about that project?
SH: I’m working on a novel called Music for the Left-Hand Alone. It’s about two brothers who both play piano. One is a genius, the other is musically proficient but motivated to play primarily by the desire to “speak” this language with his brother. Then the piano prodigy loses the use of his right hand under mysterious circumstances. It’s about an intense sibling relationship and also about one-handed piano music, which has a long and storied tradition. I love this body of piano music and love writing about it—which is both the joy and the challenge of the project. I’ve heard that this is ill-advised, that writing about music can be “like dancing about architecture.” It can be static in a scene, and the technical musical language can be off-putting or alienating. Still, I’m interested in exploring the question of what does it mean to be given an exceptional gift—what are its exigences, and how can one live and change when that gift is inexorably altered.
Sara Houghteling is the host of Stanford Writers in Conversation (SWiC), an event held each winter and spring that brings a distinguished Stanford writer to center stage in conversation about the art and craft of writing. Sara has been a beloved instructor for many years in the Stanford Continuing Studies Creative Writing program and she is currently a visiting lecturer in the Stanford Department of English. She is the author of the novel Pictures at an Exhibition, a New York Times Editor’s Choice and a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Sara has received a Fulbright scholarship, an NEA fellowship, and many other awards including the Narrative Prize for her story “The Thomas Cantor.”
We’ll be talking with Sara in a two-part series this January and February, first about the Stanford Writers in Conversation series, and then about Sara’s own writing, teaching, and career. Visitors to SWiC in 2020 will be Namwali Serpell (February 27) and Mark Greif (April 30).
Stanford Continuing Studies Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator and author of Thieves I’ve Known
Tom Kealey: Sara, how do you prepare for a Stanford Writers in Conversation evening and what would you like an audience to experience and learn during the event?
Sara Houghteling: I love being the host of Stanford Writers in Conversation and feel so grateful each time I have the chance to take a deep dive into the work of an author I admire. I have a great time reading in concentric circles around the author’s novel or collection. For example, with NoViolet Bulawayo I got to immerse myself in Zimbabwean history and read her story “Hitting Budapest,” which won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2011 and inspired her wonderful 2013 novel We Need New Names. Overall, I hope audiences will have a sense of both the origins of an author’s project and the craft and process that shaped it.
TK: The SWiC events are particularly focused on craft: how writers come up with their ideas, how they create scenes and dialogue, how they move through multiple drafts of a work. Of course, each writer’s process is different, but have you noticed any shared experiences among the writers you’ve interviewed?
SH: If there’s any overlap, it’s how much time writing takes—how many drafts are discarded, how many chapters and reams of research and lovingly rendered sentences are left on the cutting room floor. And, I suppose, a shared sense of mischief…while in real life we hope our daily path will generally be as smooth as possible, the authors in SWiC often explain how their process involves asking themselves, “What obstacles can I put in my characters’ way?”
TK: One of the most memorable evenings of SWiC was your conversation with Daniel Mason, a Stanford physician and author of many books including The Piano Tuner and The Winter Soldier. Daniel also happens to be your husband, which made for a very delightful and humorous conversation–you two had the audience laughing again and again. Could you tell us a little about that evening, and how you and Daniel experienced it?
SH: Daniel had been working on The Winter Soldier for as long as I’d known him (it was fourteen years in the making), so it was wonderful to have the book come out and to share it with our friends in the community and family in the audience that night. Interviewing Daniel was a different experience, because obviously we’d discussed the book and its process and we’re often hammering at writing problems together and discussing craft—so the public conversation came with this caveat. Still, we didn’t plan the event, so there was an element of spontaneity that kept the conversation moving. I might have known that there was a particular topic that he finds interesting, and could direct the conversation toward it, but I wasn’t certain how that would turn out.
TK: We’ve received so many great insights about the process of writing over the years during the SWiC events. We could list dozens of them. But are there one or two that stand out to you? Or one that has particularly helped your own writing process?
SH: There have been many, but I’ll pick two, for the ways they have added to my own writing process as well as to my teaching toolbox. I have a lot of students writing stories from the point of view of children, which I think is particularly hard to do. Lynn Stegner had some great advice about “finding the margin of distortion” when writing from a child’s perspective, and that when we do, we have to accentuate the young character’s experience of the five senses since other kinds of perception will be off limits. Lysley Tenorio’s collection Monstress deploys voice and point of view very skillfully and his explanation about these craft issues has also stayed with me. As writers, we have to ask ourselves, “What voice can possess the reader most fully? What information does the reader need access to?” He characterized first person as a more confessional point of view and third person as allowing leaps in time and changes in perspective. He also spoke about how when we’re writing “emotional” scenes, there’s an inversely proportional relationship between the volume of the prose and the intensity of the character’s emotions—in other words, the stronger the emotions, the more underplayed the writing can be.
TK: Please tell us a little about our two visitors for 2020—Namwali Serpell and Mark Greif. What are you hoping to explore with them?
SH: Namwali Serpell’s novel The Old Drift is an epic—comparisons to Dickens and Marquez are apt here. We begin in colonial Northern Rhodesia in 1904 and sweep forward to the near future. Craft-wise, I’m excited to talk to her about balancing the historical elements of Zambia’s colonial period and independence with the narrative demands of a novel and the creation of her unusual and fabulist characters (the novel’s tragic chorus is a swarm of mosquitoes who speak, or buzz rather, in the first person plural; and one of the novel’s heroines is so completely covered in hair that it grows long enough to conceal her entirely within a day no matter how it’s cut). Namwali’s also a brilliant scholar and professor of both literature and creative writing at Cal, so I’m intrigued to hear about how her academic interests nourish her fiction, and vice versa.
Mark Greif recently left the New School for Stanford’s English Department and I think his arrival here is kind of like basketball’s Los Angeles Lakers getting LeBron James from the Cleveland Cavaliers: a major talent moving West. Mark’s one of the founders of n+1 magazine, which first came out in 2004, and since then he’s been one of the country’s leading critics and literary minds, who synthesizes both high and low culture and links it to our country’s literary and philosophical past in deeply insightful ways. I think Mark has a unique perspective on both our contemporary consumer culture and how it’s playing out in fiction today, and I’m excited to hear him talk about the intersection of these two. We’ll discuss Mark’s most recent collection of essays, Against Everything, about which Zadie Smith said, “Mark Greif writes a contrarian, skeptical prose that is at the same time never cynical: it opens out on to beauty and the possibility of change.” I think that about sums it up!
December 2019"My trip to Djerassi was punctuated by a fierce winter storm. The unique beauty of the ranch is somehow heightened by the wild weather rolling through the valley. Writing is about getting the wide-angle perspective of human experience. The view there is a humbling reminder of how small we are. The fellowship of sharing stories and family meals reveals how much the community can fill that space."
[Note: The 2020 Djerassi retreat has passed; details for the next retreat will be available next year.]
We are delighted to invite Stanford creative writing students working on fiction (short or long) or memoir to apply to our annual Creative Writing Retreat at Djerassi. This historic artists’ residency, located in the Santa Cruz Mountains, provides an incredible setting for eleven writers to be inspired by the spectacular surrounding nature, as well as the presence of their fellow creators, all gathered to form a creative community for five very special days and nights of writing and workshopping, reflection and readings.
For those of us accustomed to meeting a whole host of responsibilities, squeezing in writing when we can, it’s a rare treat to spend this intense period of time immersed in creative work, in a place that feels removed from modern digital life. Last year, the retreat kicked off with a visit from a bobcat, his sleek form visible out in the grass. We all gathered to watch him through the floor-to-ceiling windows surrounding the room where we met for our workshops each afternoon, warmed by the fire of a woodstove kept blazing. Having led these workshops at the Djerassi retreat for the past two years, I can honestly say that it’s one of the best weeks of my year, regenerative and inspiring at a very deep level.
Following is what some of our participants from last year have to say about their experience, as well as more information about the retreat.
Malena Watrous, Online Writing Lead Instructor, Stanford Continuing Studies
"Djerassi. The name itself is special. Now add in the setting, the staff, and all they contribute to make your stay eminently inviting, and you have a recipe for a productive week. Expect to write, read, and talk about writing and reading. Expect to eat well, enjoy nature, and get to know your writing-self along with a handful of other skilled writing-selves who will become friends and supporters. The Creative Writing Retreat at Djerassi is an extraordinary experience. I transport myself back to those moments whenever I need motivation and inspiration."
“Attending the Djerassi Writing Retreat was the best thing I’ve done for my writing in a long time. It propelled me out of a post-holiday writing lull, renewed my focus, and introduced me to a terrific group of writers (and a small herd of deer who visited the hill outside my door every morning). I can’t imagine a better writerly vacation, nor a better way to kick off the new year. Djerassi provided exactly the right balance of solitude, direction, and companionship for me to be productive and to feel part of a community of writers. I worked hard all morning and looked forward to the terrific afternoon workshops, lazy nature hikes, and hanging out with new friends at lunch and dinner. (Chef Matt’s food deserves its own separate paragraph—so delicious and healthy that I shamelessly asked for seconds—and thirds). I don’t know whether to credit the excellent instruction, the gorgeous views, or the peace of the place, but I came up with some of my best ideas while staring at that herd of Djerassi deer, and I returned home with lots of fresh pages and new writing momentum that lasted throughout the year.”
"How pleased am I with my room. It is a room of my own. It contains the solitude I so crave. As we workshop each other’s pieces in the Artist Barn, there is a feeling of rapt attention, and respect for each selection. Beautiful meals here are made with care by a gifted chef. We all look forward to the conversations at these communal meals, laugh at the chore bowl as it goes around. On the first day I knew this would be a place for me, just the kind I like, isolated and beautiful. What I didn't know was that I would come to love it as much as I did, but I have it firmly tucked into a pocket of my heart. If I close my eyes, I can still see those steep hills and the wash of the ocean in the distance."
—Trudie Scott (from a journal she kept at Djerassi)
Creative Writing Retreat at Djerassi
January 15–20, 2020
Private bathroom (4 available): $2850
Shared bathroom (7 available): $2450
Set in the beautiful Santa Cruz mountains above the town of Woodside, the Stanford Continuing Studies Creative Writing Retreat at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program offers the opportunity to recharge your creative energies, recenter your projects, and gain a head of steam for your next phase of writing. Over five nights and days, we will begin each day with optional yoga, then breakfast, and then four hours of private writing time. Students will meet again for lunch followed by our shared workshop, where we will discuss the pieces that each student submitted before coming to Djerassi. Afternoons will also feature individual conferences with the instructor, additional writing time, and optional activities such as a sculpture tour and nature hikes. We will meet again as a group for a wine hour, then dinner. Evenings will host communal readings in the gorgeous natural environment.
For more information, including details on workshop focus, airport pickup, and application process, please refer to the course description and application instructions. [Note: The 2020 Djerassi retreat has passed; details for the next retreat will be available next year.]
Photos courtesy of Nate McFadden.
November 2019This month we are delighted to celebrate the publication of poet and Stanford Online Creative Writing instructor Graham Barnhart’s first book of poetry: The War Makes Everyone Lonely. Graham was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, and before that he served as a Special Forces medic in Iraq and Afghanistan, and received an MFA from Ohio State. We asked Graham to share some thoughts about how teaching poetry informs his writing, or vice versa, and he generously provided this response.
Online Writing Lead Instructor
I know this is selfish, but one of the best things about teaching poetry is that I always end up giving students advice I should follow myself. Distance and perspective make it easier to see someone else’s problem as well as possible solutions or ways forward. I hesitate to use the word “problem.” I suppose “challenge” or “obstruction” might be better words. But even those terms carry the assumption that whatever the thing is, it’s getting in the way. Preventing the poem. One reason we find writing pleasurable (and frustrating) is the challenge of finding something new in the language.
It’s like a playing a video game. When you get stuck and can’t find the magic key hidden at the bottom of the ten-story underground labyrinth, it’s tempting to ask the internet. Somewhere there is a map. A video walk-through. The labyrinth becomes a hallway. You get the key. You get all the secrets along the way, but none of them is secret. That is to say, the struggle and the process are the writing. We all know this, and we all forget it.
But I was talking about advice and distance and perspective. Right now, I’m using Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook in my course. She advocates an exercise-based approach to writing, and as I encourage students to think of the prompts as practice—to emphasize skills development rather than drafting toward a finished, publishable poem—I realize I haven’t been approaching my own work like that for a long time.
I just published a book. I know what I want to do for the next one—explore the environmental impact of war, and ways the hierarchies of need and value get rearranged when confronted with extremity. More and more I’ve felt that idea smothering the poetry. Not the poems, but the poetry. The ideas are there. The concepts feel ripe and urgent. But it has been a struggle to bring them to the page in a way that feels interesting to me. So, more and more I’ve been trying to turn back toward craft as a practice. More and more I feel grateful for the perspective and distance teaching provides, the frequent reminders that the challenges of writing poetry don’t really change.
Graham Barnhart’s new book is available from University of Chicago Press.
October 2019Literary lovers, get ready for an exciting three days of Litquake events hosted by Stanford Continuing Studies! Litquake is the largest annual independent literary festival on the West Coast and is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. This month we are spotlighting these upcoming events, so that people who live in the area and would like to meet award-winning Stanford authors, learn more about our Online Writing Certificate program, and hear our students’ work can enjoy live readings and interact with the writers!
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Bay Area literary festival, we kick off with our own Stanford Litquake on October 17, featuring five extraordinary authors currently teaching at Stanford. On the weekend of October 18-19, students who have completed the Stanford Continuing Studies Online Writing Certificate (OWC) and finished writing a novel over the past year will come to Stanford to receive their certificates and participate in the festivities surrounding Litquake. Some of these certificate recipients will be doing a reading on campus at the Stanford Bookstore, while others will read at Lit Crawl in San Francisco, a one-night literary pub crawl that is the culmination of the Litquake festival.
Here are more details about these upcoming events open to the public:
Stanford LitquakeOn Thursday evening, October 17, from 7:30 pm to 9:00 pm, Stanford’s Litquake will bring to the stage five extraordinary authors currently teaching at Stanford who will read from their most recent works: Samina Ali (Madras on Rainy Days), Tom Kealey (Thieves I’ve Known), Charif Shanahan (Into Each Room We Enter without Knowing), Austin Smith (Flyover Country), and Lynn Stegner (For All the Obvious Reasons). For both aspiring writers and book lovers alike, this thought-provoking evening promises to delight, transport, and inspire. Learn more »
Student Reading at Stanford BookstoreOn Friday morning, October 18, from 9:30 am to 11:30 am, we will host a reading in the Stanford Bookstore, where any of our students who are in town to receive their certificates may read a 5-minute excerpt from their novel. There’s a coffee shop inside the bookstore, so come grab a cup of joe and listen to some wonderful writing from novels that are finished, but yet to hit the presses!
519 Lasuen Mall
Stanford, CA 94305
Student Reading at Lit Crawl SFOn Saturday evening, October 19, from 5:00 pm to 6:00 pm, we will host a reading as part of Lit Crawl in San Francisco’s vibrant Mission District. During Lit Crawl, venues all over the Mission neighborhood open their doors to readings, and thousands of people meander the streets, listening to authors share their work while sipping on cocktails. Our OWC reading at Lit Crawl has become a cherished tradition, and we highly encourage you to come to the reading if you're in the area.
Latin American Club
3286 22nd Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Peter Fish served as Sunset magazine’s travel editor for two decades. He received a Lowell Thomas Gold Medal for environmental journalism and Time Inc.’s Henry R. Luce Award. Writers whose work he has edited include Susan Orlean, Jane Smiley, and Tobias Wolff. He was the 2018–19 Rachel Rivers-Coffey Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Appalachian State University. Fish received an MA in creative writing from Stanford. He is teaching “Writing the Globe: Travel Writing in the 21st Century” for Stanford Continuing Studies in Fall 2019.
Tom Kealey, Author of Thieves I’ve Known, former Stegner Fellow, Jones Lecturer, and Stanford Continuing Studies On-Campus Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator
Tom Kealey: Can you tell us about a particular travel writer whom you admired and who influenced you early in your career? What was the impact they had on you?
Peter Fish: One writer who influenced me powerfully was Joan Didion. She’s not generally thought of as a travel writer. But some of the essays in her first two collections, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, represent travel writing at its most evocative and enduring. Even in short pieces like “The Seacoast of Despair” (a portrait of Gilded Age Newport, Rhode Island) and “At The Dam” (on Hoover Dam), Didion’s essays do what good travel writing needs to do — paint a place indelibly, make you feel what it means to her and what it means to the world. She does so in language that is spare, clear, and precise, so that even when she’s writing about places you’ve been to, you see them for the first time. As for her longer essays, one of them, “Notes from a Native Daughter,” is for me among the best things ever written about California. We’ll be reading and discussing it and learning from it in class.
TK: You’ll be teaching “Writing the Globe: Travel Writing in the 21st Century” for Stanford Continuing Studies this fall. Could you tell us a little about the course and what students might expect to learn and experience during the quarter?
PF: The first thing this course will be is…fun. I say that for a specific reason. Travel writing is the one writing genre where you really want to enjoy doing it — because that pleasure, that passion translates directly to the page. Even if you’re writing about a travel experience that is sorrowful, or a disaster — and there are brilliant travel essays along those lines — you need to throw yourself into the writing with all your heart. Beyond that, I’m certain that everyone has at least one great travel tale in them, whether it’s a story from Bali or Brussels or Benicia. Through reading and writing and critiquing we’ll discover these stories and make them come to life on our pages.
TK: The art and craft of interviewing is an essential skill for travel writers, or really any writer of nonfiction. Could you share with us some insight into what works well for you as an interviewer? I’d be particularly interested in ”off-the-cuff” or unscheduled interviews. How do you interview someone who you simply meet as part of your writing and traveling adventure?
PF: Interviewing is indeed an essential skill for anybody wanting to write travel stories, or nonfiction of any kind. Even if it’s not a task that comes naturally to you—and it didn’t for me — it can be honed with practice. For scheduled, planned interviews, the key is to know as much about your interviewee as possible ahead of time, think hard about what you want to ask them — and also give them the chance to go off in directions you weren’t expecting. The unscheduled, off-the-cuff interview operates by a different set of rules. You’re writing about someplace interesting, you see somebody doing something interesting, you want to talk to them about it then and there. If you’re naturally extroverted, no problem. If, like me, you aren’t, you overcome your shyness and go talk to them anyway. It’s a lot like meeting somebody at a party—you want to convince the other person that you’re going to be fun to converse with and that you won’t take up too much of their time. One key bit of advice: people love to share their expertise. If you’re talking to an ornithologist or a rock-climber or a plein air painter, ask them how they got so good at what they do. They’ll be happy to tell you.
TK: You were an editor and writer for Sunset magazine for well over twenty years. Please tell us about a story or assignment that was particularly challenging for you, and how it helped you grow as a writer and/or a person.
PF: One particularly challenging story was a recent one — a feature story about Big Sur I wrote for Coastal Living magazine that was published this Summer. What made it challenging? I was writing about a place I love, that I know pretty well, and that I have written about before — and that many other very good writers have written about before. How was I going to come up with something new, something surprising, something that hadn’t been done a thousand times before? I felt intimidated. I tried — and I hope succeeded — to overcome this challenge in two ways. First, with any travel story — and especially one intended for a magazine — you need to find news. What makes Big Sur different in 2019 from how it was in 2009 or 1969? Insane real estate prices? Instagram tourism? That was what I needed to find out. Even more important, I needed to talk to people who would help me find that out—Big Sur locals who had grown up on this coast and could tell me how it had changed and how it had stayed the same. Hearing their stories, seeing Sur through their eyes, made all the difference. The people who are from a place will always come up with insights you would have never discovered on your own; it’s through them that the soul of the place will emerge.
TK: Would you be willing to share one of your “hidden gem” destinations as a traveler? What is a place that is perhaps not widely known, but that you feel is an important place for people to experience? And what was your first visit to that destination like?
PF: Last fall, I spent about ten days taking a slow-paced road trip through the American South. I was particularly interested in visiting sites associated with the African American experience: history I’d read about but maybe not fully felt because I hadn’t set foot in the places where it happened. Fortunately, in the last decade the South has been graced with a remarkable growth of museums and other institutions devoted to African American history, from slavery through the Civil War to 2019. In Atlanta, there’s Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park. In Memphis, the Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated, has been transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum, which encompasses more than 150 years of Civil Rights history — from Jim Crow to Brown v. Board of Education to today. West of New Orleans, the Whitney Plantation is unique in that it tells the plantation story from the point of view of the enslaved people: not Gone With the Wind, but 12 Years a Slave. Finally, in Montgomery, Alabama, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice honors the estimated 4,400 African Americans lynched in the United States between 1877 and 1950; the nearby Legacy Museum puts what you see at the memorial into historical context. It was a life-changing, sometimes emotionally shattering trip, one I think every American should take.
Lynn Stegner is the author of five works of fiction, including the novel Because a Fire Was in My Head and the story collection For All the Obvious Reasons. She has received numerous awards including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a Fulbright Award, a Faulkner Society Gold Medal, and the Raymond Carver Short Story Award. Lynn worked for many years in the wine industry in California and France, and it was noted that she had the exceptionally keen palate of an “organoleptic freak.” She has been a whitewater boatman, rafting most of the rivers of the western United States, and she is an enthusiastic student of fly fishing, opera, and many other pursuits. Lynn is a beloved long-time instructor in Stanford Continuing Studies, where she has taught courses on novel writing, the memoir, nature writing, and this fall is teaching a new course, “Essential Elements for Creative Writers: The Narrative Toolbox.”
Author of Thieves I’ve Known, former Stegner Fellow, Jones Lecturer, and Stanford Continuing Studies On-Campus Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator
Tom Kealey: Many of your life experiences and interests emerge and are explored in your stories and novels. It seems that your life’s adventures are fuel for your writing. But in fact is the opposite true? Is your writing fuel for your life’s adventures?
Lynn Stegner: There is a great deal of cross-pollination between my own life and the lives I live through characters caught up in different situations, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Otherwise, one can become estranged from essential and helpful elements within each half. It would be self-alienating. So the recreation and nonwriting work I have found myself doing, like the years I spent in the international wine industry, have sometimes landed in a book. But the reverse is just as true: every story depends upon research that makes the story credible as a real fictional place with persuasive fictional people.
For instance, before sitting down to compose the novella Hired Man, about an eighteen-year-old dairy farmer in Vermont, I spent three months milking cows at five every morning on the dairy farm at the bottom of our hill. That taught me a lot about that unique life — the smell of manure, the lowing of the cows, the brutally hard labor. In one of my novels I needed to know what it was like to be incarcerated in a women’s federal prison, and so I secured permission from the governor of California to spend one day at the penitentiary in Tehachapi. One day was long enough! The research for an early novel sent me up to a remote island off the northeast tip of Vancouver Island where I lived with a marine biologist for two weeks so that I could experience the orcas of Johnstone Strait directly and intimately, never mind the seasickness and the days when we got twelve (and on one day, twenty-four) inches of rain. A month during the wheat harvest in Saskatchewan was part of the homework for yet another novel. And so on.
One of the great side benefits to conducting in situ research for stories is that every trip I take is wonderfully, conveniently justified. And then there are simply the wild situations I end up in, like having to hitch a ride on a naval cargo jet from San Miguel Island to Point Mugu. If you’re creating whole worlds on the page, you’ve got to set your feet in those places on the planet.
TK: As far as just having a good, productive writing day, what are the best practices for you? What puts you in the best place to write your best work?
LS: Getting started each day generates a lot of anxiety, and for me one of the best remedies for that, or at least a way to navigate that fairly predictable rough water, is to keep a regular schedule. It’s remarkable how simple habit can carry one through. I head to my study around 9:00 a.m. and the first thing I do is read aloud a poem, sometimes the same one many days in a row, just to tune my ear to the English language as an instrument with rhythms and nuances. If I happen to be reading a novel by someone who writes beautiful sentences, then I’ll read a few pages of that, certain passages aloud if they’re especially fine. It’s easy to get diverted by reading, though, so I limit myself to no more than ten pages. Then I’m ready to revise whatever I wrote the day before, plus anything that precedes it that still needs tightening and polishing. I work chapter to chapter, so that when one is finished, and excepting plot points and factual particulars that may surface later, the chapter is done. Dialogue I always read aloud to ensure that it sounds natural.
There are writers who are perfectly comfortable writing out their entire books and then going back to revise and clean them up, sometimes many times, but I clean as I go along. No method is better than any other. It is a matter of temperament. I can’t seem to leave a mess in my wake. And more often than not I discover deeper meanings while revising, or an interesting complexity in a character, which may then send the narrative in a slightly different direction and even change the course of the novel.
This clean-as-you-go method has the advantage of saving me time when I reach the last chapter, because I’ve seldom wandered too far off track. Revision takes as long as it takes and there’s nothing served in allocating a specific amount of time for it. At last, I’m ready to push forward into new material. Maybe I’ve got three hours left, maybe just one. I stop working generally after four to five hours in my study, and if it was an especially good day, I’ll go back to my desk later in the afternoon for an hour or so to see what exactly grew on the page that morning. Included in all of the above is a certain quite necessary amount of time spent staring out the window. The three Rs: reading, (w)riting, and ruminating.
TK: Is there a particular moment or experience in your life that you find that you keep coming back to in your writing? If so, how does that experience shape your storytelling?
LS: In effect what you are asking is what question haven’t I been able to answer, book after book. Writers usually return to experiences that haven’t sorted themselves out yet. The dust is still swirling and the whole picture can’t quite be discerned with enough clarity to paste it into the photo album and close the cover. This is why first novels tend to be more autobiographical than later ones — there’s just more littering up the road, more that needs to be written out of the way. In my case I would not say that there is any single defining experience that continues to ask my attention or to imply that I haven’t in some sense mastered it. But there was an extended situation that continues to infuse the emotional and psychological atmosphere of my work, and that arises from having grown up mostly in institutions–first a foster home, then four years in an orphanage, followed by six years in a boarding school. Institutions are not necessarily bad places. You always know that there are people who care for you, but they don’t love you. So the questions what is love? how do you authenticate it? why does it succeed or fail? lie beneath many of my narratives.
TK: Your new course for Fall 2019 is “Essential Elements for Creative Writers: The Narrative Toolbox.” It’s our first lecture course in Stanford Continuing Studies Creative Writing, though I know the course will be quite interactive. How do you envision this course?
LS: It’s going to be a real mix of approaches to topic — lectures, readings, group discussions, in-class writing exercises, and volunteer oral presentations. We might, for instance, take a great story, break it down into its moving parts, and see how — and why — it works. What makes one plot a thrilling roller coaster ride and another like driving a tractor in low gear down an interstate? Or why are some characters so vivid we begin to confuse them with people we’ve actually known or met, while others are as flat as cardboard cutouts? As with any art form — music, painting, ceramics — there are actual tools and devices the artist uses to create a final product. For example, during the class session that we devote to character development, we will identify the series of points in a specific narrative when the writer enlarges upon and complicates the character as the story unfolds. Obviously characters do not arrive on the page fully formed. Getting to know them is an ongoing process. And then they change! Or they ought to. Every week will have a different focus. We will read about it, talk about it, consider specific examples, and then pick up the tool and try our own hands at it. It should be a very lively “lecture” course.
TK: I know you’ve been working hard on a new novel. Would you be willing to share a detail or two about what you’ve been exploring?
LS: Guilt — in a word. But if you had asked me that two years ago I could not have reliably said what the book explores. It has taken me three hundred pages to figure out the deepest thematic currents, and I guess I would say that they have to do with the burden of guilt human beings seem to readily accept, frequently without enough cause. I also wanted to look at the peculiar dynamics of twins as they relate to guilt and protection. It happens that I have a twin brother, as well as several friends who are twins, and so I have a special insight into the unique advantages and dilemmas of that relationship. On the surface, and in terms of the plot, it’s a novel that considers directly the effects of human beings, a brutally copious species, on the rest of the planetary community of life through an environmental crisis that occurred twenty years ago in Mexico.
Samina Ali is an award-winning author as well as a curator and a popular speaker. Her debut novel, Madras on Rainy Days, received France’s prestigious Prix du Premier Roman Etranger Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award in Fiction. She teaches in the Stanford Continuing Studies program, including "Novel Writing: The Art of Spinning Tales" (Summer 2019) and "Novel Writing: The First Chapter and Beyond" (Fall 2019).
Tom Kealey, Jones Lecturer in Creative Writing, Stanford; On-Campus Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator, Stanford Continuing Studies
Tom Kealey: Layla, the protagonist of Madras on Rainy Days, is such a complex, conflicted, and compelling character. How did you first discover/imagine her and how did you go about helping her emerge within the narrative of the novel?
Samina Ali: Creating Layla was actually a difficult process because there weren't any books at that time that depicted an American Muslim woman, and especially not one from India. I didn't have any true examples of what I was trying to do. As a new writer, it's important to have books as guides and inspiration, to both emulate and resist. It's the push and pull that can help young writers to understand their vision more clearly. Without that, I felt in many ways that I was writing in a void. Small questions of craft became pressing decisions: Do I set the book in India or the US or both? How much of Indian Muslim culture can I explain to Western readers while keeping the plot moving forward? Because I have to essentially teach while telling a story, should the narrative be in third person or can I get away with first?
To help me, I turned to other women writers: black writers like Toni Morrison and Paule Marshall. Muslim writers like Mariama Bâ and Nawal El Saadawi. In other words, I took some parts of my experience from here, others from there, and stitched it together to create Layla. Remember, I was writing about someone who is a minority in her birth country of India and a minority in her adopted country. As someone who lives in both the US and India, steeped in both American and Muslim Indian culture, Layla is simultaneously an insider and an outsider in both countries, which puts her in the unique position of being able to pull back the veil and reveal the intricacies and truths of these two worlds in a way the audience might never have considered before.
TK: I know that one of your interests is the intersection of fiction and nonfiction. On the one hand, they share so many similarities of narrative storytelling, and on the other hand they deviate in important and distinctive ways. How do you see the similarity of these forms, as a teacher and writer?
SA: Whether I'm teaching fiction or nonfiction, I tell my students the same thing: there's a big difference between fact and truth. We're not journalists. We're not chasing down facts. As creative writers, we're responsible for conveying the truth: whether that's the truth of your lived experience, as in nonfiction writing, or the truth of human emotion, which is so important to get right in fiction, whether you're writing literary or fantasy.
TK: And then, obviously, writers approach fiction and nonfiction in different ways. That said, if you are telling a story that is in a gray area between fiction and nonfiction, how do you go about choosing the form that fits that narrative in the best way?
SA: To be honest, that feels more like a question for the agent and editor. I think the job of the writer is to write the story that's demanding to be told, to just be a creative artist. Only after you've done the hard work and written the book do questions of marketing come into play. I know that sounds crazy. After all, fiction and nonfiction are separate and distinct genres. As an author, you're the one who decides, right? Well, marketing doesn't always see it this way. After you're done with the book, you're no longer in the driver's seat. The publishing house is. They get control the minute you sell the book. When my novel was coming out, memoirs were very popular. And because I had personal elements in my book, elements of truth, there was a big debate about whether to label it as a novel or a memoir. Which would sell more? Because so much of my book was fictionalized, I was relieved when it was decided to label the book as a novel. But let me tell you: even though it was shelved in the bookstore under fiction, all the marketing of the novel — which means all the publicity and interviews I subsequently gave — highlighted the memoir aspect!
TK: Is there a particular piece of writing advice that has influenced you in your writing career? If so, what is that advice, and how do you go about infusing it into your creative work and into your classroom?
SA: Not only are there many years between my first and second books, but each book has taken a good many years to write. In the amount of time it's taken me to write one complete novel and a draft of a second book, other writers have gone on to complete and publish multiple books. One friend of mine has ten books to her name! Another friend went on to win a Pulitzer Prize! When I see how much other writers are producing, it's hard not to get down on myself. But I've learned that we each have a different path and you have to get to a place where you not only accept your individual path but also relax into it.
In the end, for instance, the reason so much time has elapsed between my books is because I'm not only a writer. The publication of my novel actually jumpstarted my activism work around Muslim women's issues, which attracted the attention of the US State Department. That led to a side career as a speaker — my TEDx talk has had over 4.5 million views! I was also asked to curate an exhibition for the Global Fund for Women on leading Muslim women around the world. And because I was the first to curate a global, virtual exhibition on Muslim women, that directly led me to be invited to begin a new, tremendously exciting project that has taken up a great deal of my time. Over the past months, I've been pulling all-nighters as I rush to help formalize the initial ideas for curating three groundbreaking exhibitions that will be featured at the Dubai Expo 2020. This project excites me the most. But, at the same time as I've been working on it, I've been teaching graduate MFA students, raising two kids, getting ready to teach my Fall 2019 course at Stanford, and trying my best to finish my next book.
All of us are in this boat. We have daytime jobs or kids or sick parents or multiple projects going at the same time or depression or some life event that pulls us away from our writing. Instead of adding more pressure onto yourself, blaming yourself, and feeling guilty for not writing, I think it's important to accept whatever is happening in the moment. Because here's the truth that many don't know, the truth that I tell my students when they're concerned that they're not writing enough: even when you're not actively writing on the page, some unconscious part of your brain is still wrestling with and working through the story, so that when you do finally have the time and emotional space to get back to your writing, you'll see the progress your brain has made, figuring things out in the storyline even when you weren't consciously aware.
So widen your definition of what a writer does — because being entirely focused on your writing may not be for you. When you accept and relax into your unique path, you can then relax into your particular writing (and non-writing) process!
TK: What writing project are you working on these days, and what is it teaching you?
SA: For more than eight years now, I've been working on my next book. It's the story of how I nearly died giving birth to my son at a top hospital in the nation simply because the doctors wouldn't take my concerns seriously. I actually began writing the book at the urging of my neurologist. At the time, I'd suffered such extensive brain trauma that no one thought I'd recover. But I took my healing into my own hands, created my own milestones, and eventually, after several long years, got myself back to being what my neurologist called "healed." He was so stunned he told me that he could only guess at what happens inside the head of a patient who has suffered brain trauma. But I actually know. And since I happened to also be a writer, he thought it would be beneficial to many if I wrote about my recovery.
Well, the first time I wrote the story, I did so as a novel. After all, I'd already published a novel. I was trained as a novelist. It seemed natural. But when my editor read it, she told me that the true story wanted to break through — that the fictional narrative was holding it back. So I had an entire novel that I could do nothing with. Two or three years later, I took another stab and wrote the story as a memoir, as she'd suggested. This time, my agent read it and said, "Where this book ends, that's where it needs to begin." So that meant another full draft and more years of work that went nowhere. I started the next version where the last one ended and realized my agent was absolutely right. Beginning where I had ended the story made it much more powerful. But it also meant I wasn't quite sure where to go next.
So I wrote and wrote, thinking that I was still writing about recovering from brain damage — even though the book had undergone two incarnations. But as my agent and I discovered at the end of that full draft of the book, recovering from trauma is repetitive and slow and undramatic and agonizing — basically, everything a story should not be! So now I had three full drafts of my book on my computer and not one was right. To prevent me from writing yet another full draft and losing yet more years, my agent and I agreed that I would now write a section at a time and deliver it to her. Because the healing process isn't exciting literary material, I've incorporated larger issues into the book: Islam and its views on life and death, the myth that martyrs receive seventy-two virgins in paradise, our fears about Muslims mixed in with my own childhood growing up in the US as an immigrant. Basically, I speak about women's rights versus traditions, faith versus fundamentalism, immigration versus nationalism, and issues of life and death, and I do so in a very personal way.
I wouldn't say that I've learned patience through this process, as many might think. But I will say that I've learned that a book has a life force of its own, that it goes out into the world only after you, the writer, have matured and developed enough to write the story that the book is demanding to be told.
This month we feature Lydia Fitzpatrick, whose debut novel, Lights All Night Long, is about a Russian exchange student who arrives in Louisiana shortly after his brother is charged with murder, and who works to exonerate him from afar. Lydia has a long and varied association with Stanford. I first had the pleasure of meeting her when she took an online novel-writing workshop of mine many years back, not long after she finished her MFA program at Michigan. I remember being blown away by her incredible writing submission (some of which eventually made it into this novel) and unsurprised when she subsequently received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship. Coming full circle, Lydia has also taught for our Online Creative Writing Program. It’s a huge treat to celebrate this phenomenal publication by a former student and former instructor! Written in gorgeous prose, with indelible characters, the novel is a literary tour de force, a page-turning mystery with a truly original setup. It was an Amazon Best Book of April 2019, and the Los Angeles Times called it “A luminous debut. . . . It's hard not to read the book in a single sitting." I completely agree, and urge you to read it for yourself.
Malena Watrous, Online Writing Lead Instructor
Malena Watrous: I still remember many years ago when you took an online writing course that I was teaching. You had recently completed an MFA program and you shared the fact that your mom bought you the Stanford online course as a gift, because you were a bit adrift after finishing grad school and she thought you could use a class and a reminder to put your writing first. I remember that your writing was absolutely wonderful, and what a pleasure it was to get to read it and work with you as a student, but I don't think that this was the novel you were working on at that time. Can you talk about the trajectory of how Lights All Night Long came to be?
Lydia Fitzpatrick: I’d forgotten all about this, but yes! My mom gave me your course as a wonderfully nudging Christmas present. At the time, I’d written a short story about a teenage girl, Sadie, and I had this sense of unfinished business with her and her world. I wanted to write a novel about her, but each time I tried, I seemed to run out of steam around the hundred-page mark. I’d told my mom this, and she thought a little external guidance might be helpful, and signed me up for a Stanford online course. I think I workshopped one in that long series of abandoned beginnings with you—in it Sadie shared the narrative with a worker on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig — but soon after the course ended, I wrote another version that had legs. In it, Sadie met Ilya, a visiting Russian student, and was smitten. I was smitten too, and I started digging into his backstory to figure out why, and that was when Ilya began to eclipse Sadie’s role as protagonist and the novel in its current, recognizable form began to take shape.
MW: Because I follow you on social media, I am lucky to have gotten to watch you with two of the cutest babies I have ever seen. Your daughters are still very young, and close in age. Can you talk a little bit about how you find time to write in addition to raising children? What does a typical day look like for you — if there is such a thing?I really liked your use of second person, because it felt fresh, and I loved how you used it in a specific and unique way. Sometimes "you" is the husband and sometimes the little girl, yet I never felt confused. Was that a choice you knew you were going to make from the start? Or was it something that emerged and felt right as you were discovering the story?
LF: I’m so glad you asked this. Since the Lauren Groff interview in The Harvard Gazette, in which she said she wouldn’t answer this question until a man had been asked it, I think there’s been a general hesitation to pose the question. And while I certainly understand her reaction to it, to the sexism with which it can be asked, I wonder if focusing on the sexism of the question doesn’t in some way obscure the greater goal, which is gender parity in the writing profession. The audience who needs the answer to this question is overwhelmingly female. Women who are trying to do both—to parent and to write. So in the hopes that someone who fits that description is reading this, I’ll try to answer it as honestly and pragmatically as I can. Plus I’ve read interviews in which men have been asked the question, so hopefully I’m not in any way betraying my deep and abiding love for Lauren Groff!
When my daughters were little, I wrote and taught during their naps and during a three-hour stretch from 9 am to noon while a very patient neighbor watched them. Every single hour of writing cost $15, and there is nothing like knowing the monetary cost of every word you write — yes, I did that math daily — to motivate. I know this pressure is probably paralyzing to some, but it helped me to become a more efficient writer. Then, from 2:30 on, I parented — in body at least; my mind often strayed to the novel. Now both of my girls are in school, so I have seven hours completely free to write each day, and it feels incredibly luxurious.
MW: Knowing that your novel prominently features Russian characters, who also happen to be two brothers, I am very curious as to what kind of research went into writing it and capturing those points of view in an authentic way. Do you typically write fiction that is pretty far outside of your own personal experience? What inspires you as a writer?
LF: I love the imaginative leaps that only fiction allows. There is a thrill in trying to see the world—to experience it—as someone else. But with those leaps comes the risk of not getting it right. To minimize that risk, I did a lot of research on Russia during the years in which the novel is set. I traveled there, and I read political and economic histories, memoirs, articles, and oral histories. It’s also key to have an emotional point of contact with a character. With Ilya, the novel’s protagonist, this is a bit of a “chicken or the egg” debate. I’m not sure if his character arose from a subconscious emotional point of contact, if that is why I was so drawn to him, or if I created him and then found a way to connect him to my own emotional experience as a way of pulling him closer.
Melanie Bishop is the author of the young adult novel My So-Called Ruined Life and will teach the Stanford Continuing Studies course Writing the 'Modern Love' Essay" in Summer 2019. Her own "Modern Love" essay, "I Would Have Driven Her Anywhere," was published in The New York Times in November 2018.
Melanie recently spoke with Tom Kealey, Jones Lecturer in Creative Writing and On-Campus Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator for Stanford Continuing Studies.
Tom Kealey: Melanie, your “Modern Love” essay begins, “When my mother was booted from an assisted living facility in North Carolina for being ‘too high maintenance,’ my husband Ted and I agreed to have her live near us in Prescott, Arizona.” You explore your relationship with your mother during this time, and among other things, both of your connections to a 1992 Honda Accord and all of the small items found in its glove compartment and under the seats. Can you tell us about your original idea for the essay and how it came to be in its final form?
Melanie Bishop: The bit that ended up published in “Modern Love” was originally part of a much longer essay about my mother, titled “Final Instructions for Princesses.” I started it during a month-long residency at Djerassi1 in spring of 2016 and finished a draft in the spring of 2018, holed up in a studio at Arcosanti2. It was long and unwieldy, and I knew it needed more pruning than I’d already done, but I was too close to the material to do the necessary cutting. So I hired an excellent editor, Dawn Raffel. Her comments were enormously helpful, and one thing she said was, “I feel like the mother/daughter car wants to be an essay of its own.”
It’s a braided essay, so the car story was one of several stories that were being told in turn, in pieces, within the frame of the longer essay. In extricating all those sections, and turning them into a separate short essay, I then had to mend the holes where I’d plucked content, work on new transitions, and then find the form and the opening and the structure for the new essay. But her comment was brilliant, and I never would’ve come to it on my own. Eureka, of course it’s a separate, self-contained essay, and of such a publishable length! I sent it to “Modern Love” and received an auto-reply saying they wouldn’t be accepting submissions again until September 1. Fortunately, it was August 25, so not a long wait before I could resubmit. I received the acceptance email from the series editor, Dan Jones, on October 26, went through a few rounds of revision with him, and the essay appeared in The New York Times on November 18. All happened very quickly.
TK: Many readers of your essay had a strong emotional reaction to your story, and a number of them reached out to you online.3 Could you talk about those interactions?
MB: There’s a loneliness to caring for someone with dementia. It’s hard and repetitive and relentless. Often the loved ones are unrecognizable as the mother/father/grandmother/spouse they once were. And you miss deeply the person you knew. Yet here is this new version of them, needing you more than ever. And you struggle. And there’s a lot of exhaustion and guilt, difficulty and sorrow. In my experience, there weren’t many opportunities for fellowship or community around the experience. What happened I think, is this essay in “Modern Love” created, briefly, that missing community. So many people who wrote me had endured similar or worse scenarios; many were living through them currently. It was like a club we’d all secretly belonged to, thinking we were its sole member, and then found out there were all these others in the club! It was a party among us; the correspondence was candid and deep, a level of intimacy inherent in the shared experience. I wrote back to every person who wrote me. I still occasionally get a letter from someone who’s just stumbled upon the essay from the archives.
These numbers and this camaraderie shouldn’t have surprised me, but they did. Not only were there similar stories of loved ones made difficult by their disease, but also a dozen or so people even had stories, like mine, about an old car, rickety and beloved, a symbol of both the loved one and their decline. In my case, after my mother died, I was loath to get rid of the car. I was incapable. That sentiment is at the core of my essay.
TK: Your Stanford Continuing Studies course in Summer 2019 will aim to help students write “Modern Love”–style personal essays of their own. Can you tell us a little about the course?
MB: The course takes place on two consecutive Saturdays in July. We’ll spend the first day reading, discussing, and analyzing what makes an essay right for “Modern Love.” Numerous examples will show us the range of topics that have been covered in the column over its nearly fifteen years. As evidenced by my own essay about my mother, the column isn’t limited to romantic love. Many have written about parents, children, and platonic relationships, about heartbreak, divorce, and death. Once we’ve studied the column, we’ll do exercises to uncover our own material, and generate lists of possible topics. Before leaving the first day, students will have made a start on an essay, which they will develop over the next week. The second Saturday will be for sharing the drafts-in-progress and offering encouragement and feedback.
I want to teach this course because my own experience of publishing in the column was so exciting, and unlike any other I’ve had as a writer. When my young adult novel was published, it was maybe read by a thousand people. It had good reviews in Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly. Over a period of about a year, I received maybe a dozen fan letters and maybe fifty very positive reader reviews. The book was a top-five finalist in two reputable contests. For comparison, within a week of my “Modern Love” essay coming out, hundreds of thousands had read it, it had been translated to other languages, I had thousands of hits to my website, about sixty letters from readers, an invitation to do a radio spot, and a tweet from the deputy editor of The New York Times Magazine, praising the essay. The reaction was off the charts and it was instantaneous. The road to book publication can be so long, a year and a half from acceptance to print, and, unless you're famous, or publishing with one of the “Big Five,” book release day/week/month can feel pretty anticlimactic. Not so the day your “Modern Love” essay goes live.
TK: It seems that the “Modern Love” genre encompasses many kinds of love, as well as many different perspectives about love. What beginning advice might you offer to a writer interested in exploring their own “Modern Love” essay?
MB: My advice is to take the course! All other advice delivered there!
TK: Can you tell us a little about the writing project you’re working on now?
MB: I’m working on a few things at once. I’m marketing the aforementioned long essay about my mother, “Final Instructions for Princesses.” At 20,000 words, it’s a difficult length to publish, but I’m persisting. The essay is organized around this notion of “instructions,” how to be female, and has relevance to #MeToo. A week ago, I finished and submitted the second YA novel in the Tate McCoy series, titled The Savior of Me. I just wrote a short essay called “The Virtual Dementia Tour,” about a training I underwent as a hospice volunteer. And I’m revising a very long short story (what is it with me and stuff that’s too LONG?) that is set on one of the Cycladic Islands in Greece. That story is titled “Eklepsi,” Greek for eclipse.
Writing is hard. Writers are inventors, taking nothing — the blank page or blank screen—and turning it into something that didn’t exist before that moment. I write despite the difficulty, but often I’m reluctant, having to drag myself to the page. Teaching, though, is my first love. I feel lucky to share with students my ongoing fascination with writing and literature. I’m thrilled to be offering this course for Stanford Continuing Studies.
2. Arcosanti: An Urban Laboratory, arcosanti.org↩
A Conversation with Lysley Tenorio
Lysley Tenorio will join the Stanford Fiction Writers in Conversation series on Thursday, May 9, at 7:30 pm in the Bechtel Conference Center, Encina Hall, on the Stanford campus. Lysley is the author of the story collection Monstress, and his stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Zoetrope: All-Story, The Best New American Voices, and The Pushcart Prize anthologies. He has received the Whiting Writer’s Award, the Edmund White Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. Lysley is a professor at St. Mary’s College, and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford.
For The Writer’s Spotlight, Lysley was interviewed by Tom Kealey, Jones Lecturer in Creative Writing and On-Campus Creative Writing Curriculum Coordinator for Stanford Continuing Studies.
Tom Kealey: The book and title story of Monstress begins: “In 1966, the President of Cocoloco Pictures broke the news to us in English: ‘As the Americans say, “it is time to listen to the music. Your movies are shit.”’ He unrolled a poster for The Squid Children of Cebu, our latest picture for the studio. Our names were written in drippy, bloody letters: A Checkers Rosario Film was printed above the title, and my credit was at the bottom. Reva Gogo, it said, as the Squid Mother.” There’s so much here — humor, mystery, voice, rhythm, and especially tension. What are you trying to create for the reader in this opening, and for that matter, in any story opening?
Lysley Tenorio: Everything you mentioned, I’m definitely going for, at least for the title story. Humor, in particular, I hope, is clear in that opening; if readers can detect a hint of it, then they’ll be open to the emotional shades of the narrative, which is ultimately a sad love story but has undeniably ridiculous aspects, too.
Beyond the obvious hook that an opening should have (and “hook” is open to interpretation, of course), the thing I think is essential for any story opening is a sense of disturbance: not all is well, which is why the story is being told. That tension can be situational or rooted in character, or can even be evoked in the specific language of the opening line. However rendered or expressed, that sense of wrongness, of something being a little off its usual emotional axis, is elemental when opening a story.
TK: Pop culture is an important element of your stories and your focus as a writer. Films, music, television, celebrities, politics. Your characters stand a little in awe of pop culture, but they also have this tension with it or against it. How do you go about weaving these elements into a story?
LT: Loving pop culture — American pop culture in particular — feels very Filipino to me. (There’s a centuries-old backstory to the Filipino fascination with the West, rooted in colonialism and the intertwined histories of the Philippines and the US, but I won’t go into that.) Growing up, pop culture was a way of accessing a larger world when my own life felt rather small, tucked away — we were immigrants, and lived with the challenges inherent to that life. The fascination with pop culture feels integral to my characters, whose lives, while vastly different from my own, feel emotionally familiar, so pop culture’s presence on the page feels organic in these stories, even inevitable. That said, it’s important to deal with pop culture in any piece of fiction with a delicate and strategic hand: if your characters are going to beat up The Beatles, you’d better be sure to get The Beatles right, especially in the dramatic and thematic context of the work. Pop culture should lend itself to — but not become — the story.
TK: As I was re-reading Monstress, it occurred to me that “respect” was a theme that kept emerging — for not only the many characters who are seeking (often elusively) to claim it, but also the many characters who are seeking to give it. How do these desires help drive your characters or stories?
LT: This question is super interesting to me. I’d never thought about the idea of respect in the context of these stories, but now that you mention it, I totally see it. In “Felix Starro,” for example, Papa Felix gives sick, even dying people false hope, for cash — pretty reprehensible. But he believes it’s the only way to provide for his grandson, so those intentions, in his eyes anyway, deserve respect. Felix Jr., the narrator, recognizes that, and even though he’s (sort of) morally opposed to their scams, he can’t deny all that his grandfather has done for him. The external drama of the story is built around that tension, and the same is true for other characters in the collection as well. In “Monstress,” Checkers thinks his caveman-horror movies truly have artistic merit and deserve respect from the woman he loves; in “Superassassin,” the narrator believes his vigilantism is morally correct, and that the world should abide by his own code of justice.
TK: Writing a first draft varies greatly from writer to writer. Some authors create little more than an outline, some a near-finished product, and others more of a collage of ideas and images. Could you tell us about your first-draft process, and maybe a little about the jump you try to make to the second draft?
LT: The first draft is slow and painful, full of doubt and nonstop self-editing. But if I believe in the story, or even just the idea of the story, I’ll force myself to get to the end. From there, it’s a rewrite from the very first word. I’m a firm believer that if you change one word, then you need to reconsider the entire sentence, then the entire paragraph, then the entire scene, all in the context of language and forward movement. It’s the same process for the third draft, then the fourth, then the fifth… I don’t really recommend it, but it’s the only way I know how to write. Which is a reminder that writing does not come naturally to me at all, and is really hard and often unenjoyable work, yet for some reason I’m compelled to do it. Some of the time, anyway.
TK: In a perfect world for writers, the story we’re most interested in is the one we’re working on now. What writing project are you working on currently, and how did it come about?
LT: I’m working on a novel. In the earliest drafts, it was about some guys trying to assassinate a pair of sniffer dogs; now it’s about a guy who wears a sloth costume at work and whose mother is an internet con artist. It’s supposed to be out in the world in 2020, right before the election, so as you can imagine, it’ll be a very relaxed and peaceful time for me.
Beloved Stanford Continuing Studies Online Creative Writing instructor Rachel Howard has a lot to celebrate. Her new novel, The Risk of Us, is being published on April 9, and her wonderful essay on Lent was published on March 12 in The New York Times Magazine “Letter of Recommendation” column.
Rachel has taught memoir writing, personal essay writing, and fiction for Continuing Studies, so she is familiar with these genres, their possibilities and limitations. She and I have both written novels with autobiographical components, so I was curious to talk to her about some of the choices behind her new book, as well as about how her teaching helps to inform her writing.
Malena Watrous, Online Writing Lead Instructor
Malena Watrous: I loved your memoir about your father's death, as well as your new novel. It's interesting to me that your second book has the same introspection and sensitivity to language as the first, but is a novel rather than a memoir, even though the character seems based on you (she too wrote a memoir about losing her father in the way that you lost yours, and also moved with her husband to Nevada City, California, and adopted a child). Why did you choose to shift from memoir to fiction and what do you feel that the change in form let you get away with, or prevented you from doing?
Rachel Howard: I love this question. Thinking about the differences between nonfiction and fiction, and the possibility of a space between, is so important in my writing life. Over the years, I’ve come to feel very strongly that fiction creates a different kind of space than nonfiction. I say this as someone who loves nonfiction as much as fiction, who wants to read both James Baldwin’s essays and his stories, for instance. I think the two different modes do different things. In fiction, you enter a world that creates its own internal reality. Whether the concrete details of the story correspond to documented reality should not matter. And this means that fiction makes a space that is more whole and self-contained.
It’s true that outside of the reality of the book, The Risk of Us is informed by some of my experiences, but I was really clear that The Risk of Us was fiction before I wrote a single word of it. Not just so that I could simplify, change details, and create more internal wholeness, but also because I think a different kind of conversation happens when you're drawn inside a world that has to hold together with its own internal reality, rather than appeal to the reader's knowledge that "this really happened." Another motivation: I wanted to make a space for readers to be in this tension and emotional complexity of trying to become a family, but I didn't want it to be about me. I hope that people won’t need to speculate on the details of my real life to discuss what happens in the book.
At the same time, it’s also true that I decided not to change certain details corresponding with the facts of my own life, for instance, my father was murdered when I was a young girl, and in The Risk of Us the narrator’s father was murdered. I was OK with the nonfiction/fiction ambiguity those details might create, even curious about the effect of that ambiguity. Sheila Heti writes novels that feature a main character named Sheila Heti, and people who share the same names and characteristics of her friends, but if you read about her writing process you will find that assuming all the events in those books really transpired is a mistake. I was emboldened by that discovery. I've long been inspired by writers who welcome this kind of fiction/nonfiction ambiguity: Marguerite Duras, Jean Rhys, you could even say Grace Paley. Leonard Michaels’s novel Sylvia. And recently, Rachel Cusk and the newly popularized work of Lucia Berlin. Those influences made the choice of fiction even more decisive for me.
As for what I could “get away with” or not, I didn’t think of it that way. I feel that I’m in a different mode of communication with the reader when I write memoir and essays, and I’m working on another memoir now. Memoir is a great choice when you want to rethink, openly, things that really happened, or pay tribute to people who really existed, or engage debate on historical events.
MW: I really liked your use of second person, because it felt fresh, and I loved how you used it in a specific and unique way. Sometimes "you" is the husband and sometimes the little girl, yet I never felt confused. Was that a choice you knew you were going to make from the start? Or was it something that emerged and felt right as you were discovering the story?
RH: Thank you so much. That specific kind of second person was key to how the voice of the novel emerged. It was in large part influenced by Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which I read about four times while I wrote The Risk of Us. In that book the narrator starts in the second person, speaking to her husband, and after she learns he’s cheated on her, the voice shifts to the third person, the woman referring to herself as “she,” which reflects the self-distancing of shock. No doubt influenced by this, one day I imagined the narrator of The Risk of Us speaking the story to the husband, and the voice was there. I then realized I could use point of view thematically the way Offill had: the narrator is first speaking to her husband, and in the next chapter speaking to her daughter, and as the novel ramps toward its turning point, trying to figure out how to speak to both of them at once. So the question for the narrator is how to move from me and you, and you to us. The mode of address enacts that.
This did create some challenges. I had to make it clear to the reader which you the wife was addressing. So I started calling the daughter “Little One” and the husband “Daddy.” And I did have to stick by the choice of this point of view and just have the guts to make it work. I took the first two chapters to a writers conference and the feedback from the workshop leader was kind of saying, “Whoa, this is a complicated POV, are you sure you want to do this?” And I had to swallow and say, yep, I’m going to do it this way.
MW: I feel that as writers and teachers, one activity informs the other, in both directions. What have you learned from teaching writing that informs your own creative process? And what about writing your books would you like to bring back to share with your students? Now that you've finished both a memoir and a novel, is there anything you wish you'd "known then" (aka when you started) that would have made the process any easier?
RH: Completely agree! I love the way teaching informs my own process and I feel so fortunate to continuously learn from the brilliant new insights my Stanford Continuing Studies students bring to our readings. Teaching also forces me to try to articulate what I think is transpiring, imaginatively, between writer and reader on the page—and if I articulate this in a way that makes sense to students and also helps them make some exciting shifts in their own work, I know I’m on to something.
With The Risk of Us, the big discovery made in large part through teaching had to do with that you address, how it shifts the relationship among writer, narrator, and reader. We’re used to the narrator talking directly to the reader, but in this mode, the reader is eavesdropping, as it were, on a conversation between the narrator and someone else. So rather than being talked at, there’s a sense of overhearing an intimate exchange. And that gives the reader a little more space to be curious and to connect dots for herself, a little less pressure to feel meaning is being pushed on her. The students and I discovered this together, in our readings and in their weekly writing assignments, where I started having them try addressing their work to someone specifically imagined who was not the reader.
As for what I wish I’d known starting out, I wish I’d had in hand two craft articles that have been revelatory for me. One is “The Author-Narrator-Character Merge” (that’s not a good thing, by the way!) by Frederick Reiken, who was a close mentor of mine when I was in the Warren Wilson MFA program. Another is “What We Talk About When We Talk About Theme,” by Eileen Pollack, which I happened to spot about a decade ago in The Writer’s Chronicle. The latter article, which suggests that writers try to identify a driving thematic question for each work (ring any bells with Chekhov’s famous writing advice?*), changed my process profoundly. I will be crediting Pollack’s article for any improvement I can hope to claim in my work until I die. I have shared that article with students almost continually since first reading it.
* Writing to his brother Alexander on May 10, 1888, Chekhov listed his six tenets of a great story:
1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature
2. Total objectivity
3. Truthful descriptions of persons and objects
4. Extreme brevity
5. Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype
This month, we are thrilled to spotlight the recent publication of The Half-Life of Everything, by Deborah Gang. Deborah was a student in an online novel writing course of mine several years ago. She was already hard at work on early draft material that eventually became this published book. The story blends contemporary realism with a speculative twist: it’s about a man who believes that he has essentially lost his wife to Alzheimer’s disease and falls in love with another woman—but once a drug restores his wife’s mental health, he has to figure out what to do next. It’s a terrific premise, wonderfully executed, with truly memorable characters. The novel is already receiving all kinds of praise and made the Michigan Bestseller List (Gang lives in the state). I highly recommend picking up a copy.
Malena Watrous, Online Writing Lead Instructor
Malena Watrous: Congratulations on the publication of your novel! I’m thrilled to hear that it’s so well received. I remember your project well from when you were a student in my course. Specifically I remember a conversation when you seemed resistant to writing a sex scene between your characters that I felt needed to be on the page.
Deborah Gang: I came to realize that if you’re writing a love story, then you need to make decisions about sex. You can avoid it as I did in that earliest version, where I just did a ladylike fade-out for the ending of David and Jane’s first date. I still remember you saying, ”Oh no, you don’t get to do that. You have to write something. You don’t have to go all genitalia but you have to write something.”
MW: I don’t remember saying that exactly, but it sounds about right!
DG: Luckily, it was only this year that I read Anne Tyler’s 2012 interview in which she said, “I would never be in bed with my characters. I try to show them respect.” Anne Tyler has been a favorite writer of mine starting when I was in my twenties. When the publisher and I were getting ready to send the advance reading copy out to authors to ask for blurbs, I wanted to send her one even though she never does blurbs—by which I mean she is actively against the whole concept. Which, as a reader, I don’t agree with. My husband told me something I had no recollection of—that shortly after we met, in 1978, I gave him one of Tyler’s novels and kind of assigned it. Of course I put this anecdote in my letter to her. You can imagine my amazement when last March, I received a handwritten note from the Anne Tyler reminding me that she doesn’t do blurbs but saying that she wanted to tell me how much she liked my book—and what she liked about it. Even though I did get in bed with my characters!
MW: What was the hardest part about writing The Half-Life of Everything?
DG: The hardest part definitely was getting started. It’s one thing to have an idea, but that’s an ocean away from getting those first chapters on paper. It’s a frightening feeling to have basically no idea what words are going to show up on the page. I created some artificial deadlines for myself, and the online fiction-writing workshops that I took at Stanford provided real deadlines and great feedback from the instructors and the other writers. Later, if I would be away from the project for a length of time, it would be difficult to come back to the manuscript. I was worried I wouldn’t like the writing or the characters and I would have to force myself to enter their world again. Luckily, I became drawn in again each time—even though there were, of course, many things to improve.
MW: Well, I hope that your experiences with writing this wonderful book encourage lots of readers to grab a copy of it. Congratulations again!
I have known this month’s featured author, Jenn Stroud Rossmann, since she was a student in a novel-writing course that I taught nearly a decade ago. When she got in touch to let me know that the book she’d worked on in that course had been published to great acclaim, I was excited but hardly surprised. I still remembered her honest and funny writing about Silicon Valley.
The novel-writing journey differs for everyone. It can take one year or fifteen to finish a book, and the book can come out linearly or in a patchwork of scenes that need quilting together. In addition to creativity, one quality that is absolutely required is tenacity: a refusal to let the “problem” go until it’s solved. That’s a quality that Jenn has in abundance, in addition to creativity and wit. This book may have taken many years to produce, but those years were well spent, and for the reader, it’s worth the wait. In this month’s Writer’s Spotlight, Jenn talks about the particular journey leading to the completion of The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh, which Kirkus Reviews called “a thoughtful, caring examination of race, class, and wealth in America.”
Malena Watrous, Online Writing Lead Instructor
Jenn Stroud Rossmann:
I began this novel just after the dot-com bubble burst: it’s set in 2002 Silicon Valley. But by 2011, I was still working to find its ideal structure and the right number of point-of-view characters. Whose story was it, really? The dotcom mogul’s neglected wife, who’d been there in the startup days but had been slowly edged out? The ad guy whose ironic, self-aware ads had helped the dotcoms prosper, but whose client list had just imploded? The Stanford physics professor whose students had dropped out to join startups? Or the fourteen-year-old black adopted son of “well-meaning but nevertheless white” parents? Was it even going to be possible to tell all these stories in the same book?
Residential workshops played a significant role in my ability to develop my craft and my community of writers, and to take my “hobby” seriously. I also was fortunate to have had a strong writing group in graduate school, but that group had become geographically far-flung, with interfering day jobs. Life doesn’t always permit the luxury of a workshop or residency far afield. I’ve wrestled with the “balancing act” (a generous euphemism) of writing fiction while maintaining a full-time job and trying to spend time with my family. Then suddenly, in the midst of a busy academic year, my in-laws gifted/nudged me with a registration in Stanford’s Online Creative Writing program. They registered me for the second of three novel-writing classes taught by Malena Watrous: “The Adventurous Middle.”
Having assignments and accountability was an enormous motivator. I treasured Malena’s weekly “lecture” posts that guided our reading and writing. I threw myself into critiques of my classmates’ submissions, and into my own writing assignments. And perhaps most magical of all were the scheduled weekly “office hours” of discussion and Q&A, when I was assigned to engage in conversation about craft and critique. Phone consults with Malena about my work extended these discussions and made me feel my project might be worth the effort.
When I signed up for the third course, “The Art of Plot,” I was well aware that I was a writer for whom characters took precedence, with plot emerging only after pages (chapters!) of situational, character-developing writing. Several of my classmates were working on mysteries and more plot-driven projects; I was self-conscious about the slow momentum in some of my polished but plotless sections of writing, and began to restructure my novel.
By the time that course had ended, I’d made progress on my own project and also become invested in the works in progress of my classmates. I think it was during one of those online office hours that a few of us embraced the idea of continuing to read and critique each others’ work. We started a private blog on which each week one of us would post 750 words; the rest of us would post our responses. Each of us had occasions when we spent the first paragraph of our critique apologizing for taking so long, but we did catch up when we’d fallen behind. We discussed what we were reading, and took turns managing the blog. It has been a gift to have thoughtful, sophisticated readers taking your 750 words seriously. That community has been thriving for several years since we “met” at Stanford.
Read more about how Jenn Stroud Rossmann has navigated the world of writing:
This month, we are excited to spotlight the publication of a personal essay by Judith Wagner, who wrote a draft of this essay while a student in “The Creative Habit, Part B” course. Judith was such an asset to that course, as someone who had a lot of experience writing but not in creative writing, and who took to the habit like a fish to water. Below, Judith discusses how she decided to take the course and submit her essay for publication, as well as the process of working with an editor to arrive at the finished version now in print.
Visit stanfordmag.org/essays to read Judith's story, "How Three Women Scientists Gave One Another a Boost—Without Even Realizing It."
Malena Watrous, Online Writing Lead Instructor
Writing—lab procedures, recommendations, evaluations—was always part of my work as a biology teacher. For a time I also wrote itineraries for a nature travel company and environmental assessments for a consulting firm. And I’d published a few research papers, based on my graduate work, in professional journals. But until I stopped teaching and time opened up in front of me, I had never written my own stories. I like the sense of producing something that might be lasting, that others might enjoy. Perhaps, as I’ve joked about teaching, it’s another way for me to talk so others will listen.
I wrote this essay in 2017 with Stanford magazine in mind. In Spring 2018, looking for a way to structure my writing, I signed up for “The Creative Habit, Part B,” with Malena Watrous. Encouraged by positive responses to my writing, I sent a second inquiry to the magazine, this time with my essay attached, and they were interested. But my draft was too long, so the magazine’s editors revised it for length and style. (That was something new for me: to have a piece with my name on it edited by someone else.) We went back and forth a few times. My suggestions were accepted, and their fact-checking caught an error. (I’d said that in 1977 Stanford had no women biology professors; I’d forgotten about Hopkins Marine Station, and Isabella Abbott deserves to be remembered.) What at first I was afraid would no longer “sound like me” has come to be something I’m happy to see in print with my name on it. It’s a good story; I’m glad to have the chance to share it with a wider world.
THE WRITER'S SPOTLIGHT ARCHIVES
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