Thursday, February 24, 2011

Interview avec moi


As readers of this blog know, on Monday I shared with you a great interview I conducted with historical fiction writer Erika Dreifus. I thought today I should pass along word that I've been interviewed on another writer's blog. Her name is Cathy Day and the blog is titled The Big Thing. It's a fantastic resource for anyone who teaches, or who is concerned about the teaching of, creative writing in the academy. I actually blogged about The Big Thing a couple weeks ago. Cathy has long been interested in the issue of how to make the creative writing workshop useful to students who want to work in longer forms (like the historical novel). After reading a couple of my December posts about a novel writing class I taught, Cathy contacted me and later decided to interview me for The Big Thing, asking me to explain how and why I structured the class as I did. She divided the interview into multiple parts, the first of which debued yesterday. Check it out!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Interview with Erika Dreifus


Erika Dreifus—fiction writer, reviewer, blogger, and self-described “resource maven”—recently published a short story collection called Quiet Americans (Last Light Studio, paperback, $13.95) that is profoundly historical in nature. Borrowing in part from her own family’s history, the book demonstrates the long term effects of the holocaust, not only on those who lived through it but on those later generations who find themselves in the United States only because in the 1930s an ancestor escaped Nazi Germany. For a fuller description of Quiet Americans, see my review of it on this blog.

Given that Erika is an experienced writer of historical fiction, and someone who has even taught classes on the subject, I wanted to interview her and capture her thoughts on some sticky questions related to this popular—but sometimes contentious—genre.

First, a simple, or maybe not so simple, question. How do you define historical fiction?

It's not so simple!

The Historical Novel Society offers a definition that I have found useful in launching these discussions (in a past life, I taught writing workshops for historical fiction writers):

"To be deemed historical (in our sense), a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research)."

The organization goes on to say:

"We also consider the following styles of novel to be historical fiction for our purposes: alternate histories (e.g. Robert Harris' Fatherland), pseudo-histories (e.g. Umberto Eco's Island of the Day Before), time-slip novels (e.g. Barbara Erskine's Lady of Hay), historical fantasies (e.g. Bernard Cornwell's King Arthur trilogy) and multiple-time novels (e.g. Michael Cunningham's The Hours)."

Thank you. These are very useful distinctions, and, as the Society points out, all are legitimate, if varied, examples of historical fiction. How would you apply the definitions to your own book?

My work, as reflected in my new collection, Quiet Americans, is definitely more in keeping with the first, more "realist" part of the HNS definition. Three of the seven stories take place before my lifetime; a fourth is set during my very early lifetime (and was therefore depended entirely on research for the historical setting).

But while we’re on this topic, let me go a bit further on the issue of definition: I've long been intrigued by the way in which certain fictions written close to the time of the events they describe become "historical fiction" for the readers they reach many years later. For their authors, they may most accurately be considered "contemporary" or "political" fictions, but for the reader generations later, they exude historicity. For example, the first section of Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française provides what was a contemporary account of Paris in 1940, but today's readers may perceive it as "historical" fiction. When does the contemporary become historical? Some of the later stories in my book incorporate events that were "contemporary" when I was writing about them in 2004 or 2006. Are those stories already "historical" for the reader? Will they be more "historical" for a reader fifty years from now? These are tantalizing questions.

Yes, I think this is important. It gets at the idea of a fiction’s historicity stemming from the uniquely interesting/important time period in which it is set, be that far from the writer’s own time or close to it. I agree completely with your example of Suite Française. It’s impossible not to feel that a big part of the book’s intrigue is in how it portrays that crucial period in French and world history. I think too of Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel. No one would have called that book historical fiction when it first came out, but how can we not read it now with one eye on what it shows about the history of leftist politics in America?

Back to Quiet Americans. The book spans a wide stretch of time, from the early 20th century almost up to the present. Yet there is an obvious thematic connection between the stories. At what point did you know that you were composing a linked collection as opposed to separate stories? Did you ever consider turning the material into a novel?

Well, the stories certainly are linked thematically, and a few of them are linked further by characters and families who reappear from story to story, but some might argue against characterizing the book as a "linked collection," simply because not all of the stories involve the same characters/families. Which is all a prelude to saying that I'm not certain that I ever knew I was composing a linked collection, and I never seriously considered turning the material into a novel (perhaps because I had already written one unpublished, Holocaust/World War II-focused novel manuscript).

It seems important to note that the "oldest" of the stories in this book dates from a fall 2001 draft; three of the seven originated as submissions for MFA program deadlines. One of my program's strengths was its emphasis on generating new work: We were required to submit 8-25 pages of fiction twice during each semiannual residency and four times each semester. Revisions were acceptable, but even so, I wrote a lot of new stories in those years. Which means that I wrote a lot of stories that do not appear in this book. And shaping a collection was a process that took many years. At some point, I became certain that I had sufficient stories that cohered in some way to compose a collection—it just took me a long time to develop the particular content and sequence of Quiet Americans.

Wow, that’s a lot of composing over a very compressed time. The way in which it paid off for you is a good lesson for any writer. In several important ways, Quiet Americans draws directly from your own family's history of emigration to this country. Does exploring and utilizing one's own family's history affect the nature of writing historical fiction? Does it become harder or easier to insert oneself into past periods? Are there any extra burdens that you carry?

What great questions. I'm not sure that I can answer them right now. I'll want to think about them for quite awhile.

Overall, I've considered it an immense privilege to write these stories. The one pattern I'm noticing now that the book is out—I wouldn't call it a burden—is that I'm being asked by readers-who-are-family-members what, exactly, I've made up and what is "real" when it comes to the characters who most closely resemble my grandparents.

Yes, how often do we get asked that by our relatives, no matter what kind of fiction we’re writing? And the maddening thing is that they’ll never believe your explanations, because no one can who hasn’t immersed herself in the creative process. How much research did you carry out before starting the stories in Quiet Americans? How about other historical fictions you've written? How much of that research finds its way into the stories? And does your background as a historian give you an advantage?

In general, I've found that most of my historical fiction springs from some sort of osmosis, whether from having listened to and thought about various pieces of family history or having stumbled on a document or historical tidbit quite unintentionally. As I write, the research becomes increasingly important, but it's not usually the spark. And, like pretty much any other historical-fiction writer, I've uncovered plenty of material that ultimately doesn't make its way into the work.

I'd say that my background as a historian helps in several ways. For starters, I have a love for research and I'm not afraid to go looking for what I need. I'd also like to think that my training helps me approach and evaluate sources knowledgeably.

When you write a historical fiction are there any aspects of the past period that you feel are especially important to reproduce? For instance, settings or costume or diction? Are there any aspects you pay less attention to?

Another great set of questions. I do want everything to be plausible, but I probably pay less attention to settings, costume, and diction than others do. Some examples of historical details I've attended to quite carefully are the legal constraints that faced Jewish doctors in Nazi Germany (and then refugee doctors in the United States) in "For Services Rendered," the chronology of the Munich Olympics and the murder of Israeli athletes in 1972 for "Homecomings," and, in my unpublished novel, the medical protocols for managing the care of infants born prematurely around 1940.

I heard Ron Hansen say at one AWP session on historical fiction that when a writer is portraying an actual figure from history, he should not “knowingly depart from fact.” Do you accept this proscription?

I wish that I'd been there to hear Hansen say that, hear what prompted him to say that, and hear any responses. The use of "real people" in fiction is such a complicated issue. It always came up in my workshops on historical fiction, and some of the discussion always took place around an assigned reading of an edited transcript of a 1968 panel discussion that had taken place among Ralph Ellison, William Styron, Robert Penn Warren, and C. Vann Woodward.

And I always liked to quote Ellison, who argued that because "the work of fiction comes alive through a collaboration between the reader and writer," the dilemmas become more acute when fictionalizing individuals from more recent history. In contrast to an historical figure in a Shakespeare play, for instance, he suggested, "[I]f I were to write a fiction based upon a great hero, a military man, whose name is Robert E. Lee, I'd damn well be very careful about what I fed my reader, in order for him to recreate in his imagination and through his sense of history what that gentleman was. Because Lee is no longer simply an historical figure. He is a figure who lives within us. He is a figure which shapes ideal of conduct and of forebearance and of skill, military and so on. This is inside, and not something that writers can merely be arbitrary about. The freedom of the fiction writer, the novelist, is one of the great freedoms possible for the individual to exercise. But it is not absolute. Thus, one, without hedging his bets, has to be aware that he does operate within an area dense with prior assumptions."

And I also liked to quote Styron (who, it should be noted, was quite the center of attention at the time for his Confessions of Nat Turner), who presented this view: "[A] novelist dealing with history has to be able to say that such and such a fact is totally irrelevant, and to Hell with the person who insists that it has any real, utmost relevance. It's not to say that, in any bland or even dishonest way, a novelist is free to go about his task of rendering history with a complete shrugging off of the facts....It is simply that certain facts which history presents us with are, on the one hand, either unimportant, or else they can be dispensed with out of hand, because to yield to them would be to yield or to compromise the novelist's own aesthetic honesty. Certain things won't fit into a novel, won't go in simply because the story won't tell itself if such a fact is there....The primary thing is the free use and the bold use of the liberating imagination which, dispensing with useless fact, will clear the cobwebs away and will show how it really was."

It really is complicated. It really does depend. Did I depart knowingly from fact in "For Services Rendered"? I'm not sure. According to the facts, as I knew and researched them, "For Services Rendered" is entirely plausible. Is it factual? Most unlikely. On the other hand, the only words I put in Golda Meir's mouth in "Homecomings" are words that I am sure, from research, that she really said.

Thanks for the great quotes, and the insights. I can see how both Ellison and Styron, from their different perspectives, were responding to Nat Turner. I tend to lean toward Styron's view. Finally, of course, an adherence to fact is a very personal decision by the author, as your answer suggests. I don't like or want to just disregard facts, as Styron allows, but neither do I want to feel chained by them. Writing a novel is writing a novel, not writing a biography. There has to be a difference. As long as the author is open about what he's doing, and doesn't pretend to be strictly factual. Styron never did. Anyway, what you said about "For Services Rendered" gets to the heart of the matter for me. Even if a writer doesn't knowingly depart from fact, what she writes can still be extremely speculative and even implausible, fully a creation of her imagination. For the most part, that describes my Van Gogh novel, although I did depart from fact on occasion.

A different question. I know that some writers of historical fiction operate from the premise—or feel that have to—that while modes of external behavior (how people dress, how they talk, how they vote can change drastically over time) humanity remains essentially the same on the inside. Is that a premise you accept?

For the most part, yes, I have accepted that premise. Back in 2001, I read a wonderful essay by Geraldine Brooks on this topic, and I embraced what Brooks had to say wholeheartedly. But now, watching so many changes in the way we live and interact with each other—yes, technology has a lot to do with this—I have a few more doubts.

And before I sign off, please let me thank you, John, for inviting me to answer these questions, and for maintaining such a wonderful resource here at Creating Van Gogh for those of us who write historical fiction.

Thanks, Erika. Your comments were really useful. Good luck with your book!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The dream killers


Spike Lee came to our campus this week, and I was very glad to see him here. The Writing Department, all by itself, tried to bring him in many years ago but just couldn't afford it. I'm excited that someone higher up the food chain at UCA had the same idea. Lee gave a good if not exactly scintillating talk, recounting his days as a college student, telling the story of how, with the support of some key people, he became a filmmaker. While it was mostly a standard fare talk for a visiting artist, Lee did say one thing that really struck me. He felt so strongly about this that he repeated the statement twice: "Parents kill more dreams than anyone." I'm not sure I'd ever heard the sentiment formed so succinctly before. As a former dreamy young person and a parent of two young people now, the statement resonated with me, probably more than most people in the audience. This is a subject of vital importance, one that my wife and I have discussed in detail recently in regards to our own children. It's also something that our creative writing students run up against constantly with their own "well-meaning" parents (or girlfriends or professors or bosses or . . .). And I'm betting that if you are a fiction writer, maybe a budding historical novelist, you've come up against a Dream Killer once or twice; and if you've not had your dreams killed, they have at least been smirked at. Perhaps by the very people who ought to be even more concerned than you that your dreams be allowed to breathe.

Let's be honest, this is almost always about money. More accurately, it's about what jobs parents think will make the most money for their children and therefore what jobs the parents insist their children pursue in order to get at that mythical pot of green. Sometimes, less often, it's about respectability, about what jobs the parents think will make their children--or themselves, really--look good in the eyes of friends and relatives. And that may be an even more pathetic equation. Talk about trying to live through your kids. Look Johnny, I know you want to be a composer, but I think Aunt Alice will be really impressed if you become a lawyer, so let's just toss that silly sheet music aside, shall we? As exaggerated a formation as that sentence sounds, I know someone who actually thinks this way. Who actually thinks like that exactly.

The fallacies surrounding all this dream murder are so numerous it's hard to know where to begin. First, it is very difficult to imagine someone succeeding, monetarily or otherwise, in a career in which he or she isn't interested. Because if the person isn't interested in it, it probably means they are no good at it. We tend to pursue what we like, and what we like tends to be what we're good at. It's not as if you can plop a would-be marine biologist into a surgical career and just say, "Okay, now succeed!" Second, if it's money parents are interested in, then what they should want is for their children to choose careers they're interested enough in to stick with and build a life around. No one gets rich (or happy) moving from job to job to job, or--worse--from career to career to career. Choose something you like and stick with it, throw yourself into it, watch the fruits of your choice with time. (Remember that book from a couple decades ago? Do What you Love and the Money Will Follow.)

But the great sin of killing a young person's dreams, telling him or her what they can't do, has nothing to do with money. It has to do with abusing someone's soul. After all, parents are the caretakers, not the autocrats, of the souls of their children. It is precisely not their job to tell the children what career choice to make, but to provide a way for their children to make their own choices, and then support those choices enthusiastically. After all, your children, like you, only live once; they have one opportunity to realize dreams. Who the hell are you to rob them of their one opportunity? I was lucky. Both of my parents were scientists, but when I realized in high school that my talents lay elsewhere, when I decided I would be headed to college not to study physics or chemisty but literature and creative writing, my parents supported me unhesistantly. They knew that to truly "make it" I had to fully approve of, and be passionate about, my own choice of a major. I really could not have asked for wiser parents. (Spike Lee, fortunately, had a similar experience.)

Like I said, some of our students are not so lucky, especially our students who are first generation college students. Their parents don't seem to understand college at all, much less pursuing a major one is fascinated by. (The most absurd example I've heard yet: A student in our department is only a semester away from graduating with a degree in creative writing, and her family is now pressuring her to quit college, return home, and start work in the local factory. In other words, to throw her college education out the window and aspire to be just like them. Huh? The pressure is getting so intense she may be robbed of the financial support necessary to finish.) The saddest aspect, finally, about this style of parenting--top down, unimaginative, proscriptive and prescriptive--is that it leads to hollowed out people, to adults who aren't really. 65 year olds who are mentally 16 and emotionally 7. (And don't we have enough of those already?) Adults who can't make decisions for themselves, or never trust the decisions they do make, because they've been allowed to make life's most crucial decisions, or because their own decisions have never been respected. People who have never known the satisfaction of putting themselves on a certain, self-directed course--come hell or high water--and seeing the benefits of that choice come to fruition as years and decades go by. My children are going to have every opportunity to see their dreams set in motion. And no one is going to play the role of Dream Killer. I simply cannot allow it. As a parent, I've got no bigger charge.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Check out "The Big Thing"


I returned home yesterday from the AWP Conference with various thoughts stinging my head, particularly about the organization's approach to pedagogy generally and its decision specifically to eliminate pedagogy forum sessions from the conference in 2012 and beyond. I think, however, that I will save those thoughts for a future post. Today I'd like to alert readers to a great and passionate blog titled The Big Thing, created and maintained by Indiana writer Cathy Day. Cathy is and has been extremely concerned about the ways in which the traditional creative writing workshop--regardless of genre--discourages students from tackling larger forms like the novel, the novel-in-stories, the long poem, the linked essay collection, and the book-length memoir. She discusses this subject on her blog and offers ideas to teachers on how to afford space in their classes for the longer forms and ideas to students on how to pursue them. A superb and compelling introduction to Cathy's point of view is her essay "The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia's Novel Crisis," published recently in the online magazine The Millions. Believe me, the piece has generated a lot of buzz. If you are someone who aspires to tackle longer projects like the novel--as I assume you are if you read Creating Van Gogh--and especially if you are someone who either takes or teaches creative writing classes at one level or another, you need to examine Cathy's blog. It is riveting and thoughtful reading, full of useful anger and provocative strategizing. It will make you completely rethink the idea of the creative writing course, in ways both subtle and significant.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

AWP is on! Day 2/3


Couldn't blog at all yesterday as my wife needed our computer for some sessions, and, besides, the internet was down at the conference hotel. Bad news when you've got a bunch of computer-hungry writers around. On the whole it was a good day, though, despite opening up my portable hard drive at one point and not seeing the file of the novel I completed in my Novel Writing workshop last semester. (See former posts about this subject.) I had planned on doing some editing, and it was nowhere to be found. Later, however, I discovered the problem.

Went to an interesting, and fairly angry (maybe I should say urgent) session called The Future of Creative Writing at the Academy. The subtitle could have been, "Or how do we get these idiot administrators off our backs?" The most troubled speakers were two women from University of Central Florida, where drastic administrative intrusion is forcing them to make very hard decisions. Like teaching workshops with 35 students in them. Yes, that's right. And running enormous lecture courses with 150 students. To their credit, they are trying to make the best of a bad situation, trying to still do right by their students (which is more than one can say for their administrators), but it sounds like quite a battle. As usual, the voice of serenity and careful planning was Philip Gerard from UNC-Wilmington, whose program is as thoughtfully put together--and functionally autonomous--as any in the country. Sounds like a little bit of creative writing heaven.

At lunch, I took my own advice and drafted a couple poems, playing around with some of the words in the songs piping through the radio at the sandwich place where I ate. The songs were "Don't you love me, baby?" and "Piano Man." I know. I can hear the cringing. Too bad. It was a poetic word game, and I enjoyed it. It also gave me something to tinker with later as I sat at the Toad Suck Review booth, waiting to snare stragglers with our sales pitch.

I went to one other session yesterday, this one on the Long Poem. I'm toying with the idea of proposing a Topics in Creative Writing class at my school on this subject, so I was curious to hear what the speakers had to say. There were a great many contemporary long poems referenced, and a number of practical aesthetic points discussed, but what sticks in my craw from this session has nothing to do with its subject matter. This was yet another one of those typical AWP sessions in which no time was afforded for audience questions, mainly because one of the panelists just couldn't bring herself to edit down her clearly too long paper. She must have spoken for at least a half hour. Not only did the audience not get a chance to speak, but one of the panelists never did either! What is wrong with these people? Why can AWP not insist on a ten or twelve minute time limit per panel speaker? Why can't these speakers simply time themselves in advance and--hey, amazing idea--edit their darn papers if they have to to fit the time frame? Talk about blithe arrogance, talk about self involvement to the point of myopia--which unfortunately is a characteristic of the whole AWP organization. Heck, talk about disrespecting your audience. The people who attend this conference are smart people; their questions, and the responses they evoke, are often the best aspect of a session. Yet maybe half the sessions at an AWP leave time for such questions, even though every single session claims it will.

As I mentioned, I also hung out a bit more in AWP's gigantic Book Fair, which in the end may be more valuable to writers than the sessions are. The most interesting figure in the room was writer Davis Schneiderman, who came dressed as a mime, white face and all. And then he acted like one, freaking out a number of dumbfounded writers. We are a blockheaded group, aren't we? (See previous comments about myopia.) Since Davis visited UCA last year, I'm familiar with his inventive gamesmanship. I loved it. And as a contributor to the new Toad Suck Review, he dropped by our table and did his mime routine, at least until I realized who he was and then we started chatting. I've discovered a few interesting new journals at the Book Fair (or at least new to me) and have heard about some intriguing format changes in other ones. Seattle Review, for instance, has completely remade itself into a journal committed to longer forms; that is, the long poem, the novella, and the long essay. How convenient to find this out just as I'm thinking of proposing a Long Poem course. And there's no doubt that the most underrepresented forms in the marketplace of literary journals are the longer forms. There's almost no place to send them, which is ridiculous and culturally stifling. Congrats to Seattle Review for being forward thinking.

Bit more of the conference today, and then I meet my mother and sister for a visit to the Phillips Collection--not far from our hotel--and a dinner in DC. It's great to be back in this city again, where I lived and worked several years ago. On one hand it hasn't changed a bit. It's still elegant and upbeat and remarkably multi-cultural. On the other hand, it's easy to see plenty of little changes. But nothing fundamental. Like all great cities, it abides.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

AWP is on! Day 1


I put up a quick note this morning about successfully arriving in Washington despite the terrible weather country-wide; so now, much later in the day, I thought I would share some news and reflections from day 1 of the AWP conference. This will prove to be my most session-heavy day, I'm sure, and by design. There's a diminishing returns quality to a massive conference like AWP. Too many sessions and your brain turns to jello. So while I'll still be at the conference, tomorrow and Saturday will likely be a bit lighter in terms of my session involvement.

Today's sessions, I'm happy to report, were all fine. Early on, I attended a session on encouraging and enabling the use of multi-media strategies for students' storytelling. As one speaker remarked, this subject is urgent. The literary landscape is changing under our feet, almost by the minute, as innovations like the iPad fundamentally alter what reading means. Anyone who wishes to write in the literary landscape of the future needs to be fluent in multi-media. Even if this idea is disheartening to a former curmudgeon like myself, I can't deny that it's also probably accurate. I also attended a really fascinating session on the use of monsters (liberally defined) in literary fiction. While the conference, because of massive travel problems caused by the Big Storm, has not been nearly as crowded as in the past, this session was jammed. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. After all, the tremendous--and growing--popularity of supernatural fiction can't help but be felt, and reiterated, by AWP conference goers. And that's not a bad thing. The presenters named some titles that really sound intriguing and that I need to read, especially given that I taught a Special Topics course at UCA last fall called "Supernatural Realism."

I attended two other sessions today. One was a pedagogy forum session featuring short papers on the teaching of writing fiction and drama. The session went fine--I heard some wonderful approaches for teaching specific aspects of craft--but before the session got underway the moderator announced that starting next year AWP will no longer include pedagogy forum sessions in its program. The rationale behind this decision was supposedly a desire to increase AWP's commitment to pedagogy as a subject matter, a statement that I do not believe and that makes no sense. Whatever becomes of pedagogy at AWP, I will regret the loss of the pedagogy forum. It provided an important entryway for graduate students and y0ung instructors to come to AWP and present. It also is the only part of the AWP program in which the acceptance of one's proposal is based solely on its individual merits and not on whether it was included as part of a shiny-glamorous panel configuration.

The last session I attended was a very enlightening session on contemporary Jewish-American fiction, featuring several expert voices, including Margot Singer, Anna Solomon, and Erika Dreifus. A friend of my wife's spotted me there and we chatted afterwards. I'm afraid my attendance confused her. "Are you Jewish?" she asked. No, I assured her, smiling. Her confusion was perfectly understandable. After all, the audience was almost entirely Jewish. But in fact my roots are pure Irish Catholic (or at least as pure as someone's can be whose last name is Vanderslice).

Sitting through today's sessions, I realized that I've adopted a Code of AWP Behavior for myself, a code meant to make the conference more useful and less stressful. To end this post, I'll share some items of my Code. Rule 1: No forced networking. For networking to be profitable it also has to be genuine. Forcing yourself into conversation with someone for no other reason that to stick your name in their face makes you come across as bumbling, illiterate, and possibly mentally retarded. Just go to the sessions, learn what you can, ask questions when you feel like it, and don't feel compelled to talk to a soul if you don't want to. Don't worry about making any specific number of contacts. Just enjoy. With so many writers floating around, you're bound to fall into conversation with one of them anyway--a more natural conversation, that is. Rule 2: Leave the conference hotel for meals and as often as you can. Any conference as big as this one will drive you bonkers after a while and surely mess with your perspective. Get out. Cross the street. Realize that there is sub shop over there filled with people who don't all want to talk about their just completed sonnet sequence or the novel they are trying to find an agent for. Normal people still exist. Rule 3: Avoid the how-to-publish-your-book-sessions or any variation thereof. These sessions reek with desperation and oneupmanship. They will curdle your soul and make you doubt the benign nature of humanity. Besides, rarely does one ever learn anything new in them. How many times does one need to be told how to compose a letter to an agent or that the traditional market for fiction is dwindling to nonexistence? Rule 4: Write while you are here. Most people will tell you that it's impossible to write at AWP--but that's a flat out lie. If you call yourself a writer and you "can't write," then shame on you. Go to the bar and compose a few flash fictions over a pint or two. Skip a morning session and draft a story in your hotel room. Grab a lobby seat for twenty minutes and jot down a poem in your notebook. So what if the efforts aren't your best ever? That's not the point of this Rule. The point of this Rule: For a writer, writing tames your soul, lowers your blood pressure, puts you in equilibirum. It's what you do. It's who you are. It's why you are here. Good to remind yourself of that from day to day when faced with so many people urgent for that next job or book contract. Finally, it's the writing that matters. And it's the writing you have to love. Otherwise you're in the wrong business.

If I think of any other Rules in the Code, I'll let you all know.

Made it to AWP


We certainly endured a weather scare this week, but traveling from Arkansas to Washington DC for the AWP conference proved surprisingly trouble free yesterday. Very cold temperatures and windy conditions were all we had to deal with, and when I landed in DC yesterday I was shocked to find that it was actually warm! At least by winter storm standards. Then the blustery front from the midwest arrived and temperatures plummeted over the course of just a few afternoon hours. When I left the hotel to go to Erika Dreifus's publication party for Quiet Americans (see my review in my previous post) it felt just like it had on Tuesday night in Arkansas. The party was wonderful, hosted very graciously by Erika's friend Natalie Wexler and her husband who own a terrific collection of art from Uruguay. Erika read from the book and signed copies. It was great to meet her in person.

Today AWP kicks off and I will try to provide a few updates on this space. I'm going to try to have a more sane AWP experience this year: fewer sessions but more carefully selected sessions. And I'll need to help out my colleague Mark Spitzer who is running a book fair table for the Toad Suck Review, the new identity for what used to be called The Exquisite Corpse Annual. And now . . . I'm off!