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Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop: A Review

2014 October 10
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The Writing Life

This summer, a great and wonderful circumstance led me to the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop. Hosted by Tin House and housed on Reed College campus in Southeast Portland, Oregon, this workshop was the miracle I didn’t know I needed. It was the kick in the pants I didn’t ask for. Most of all, it was deeply touching, intellectually stimulating, and rife with endless seeds of inspiration!

Okay, I’m gushing clichés. But seriously, stick with me while I lay out the excellence which was #THWW14.

Tin House logo

I had the honor of participating in Kevin Young‘s Poetry workshop with eleven other poets. We ranged in age from 20 to 44 and came from all over the U.S.: Indiana, L.A., Florida, Albuquerque, Washington, Maryland, North Carolina, N.Y.C., Portland, OR., et cetera. We had six days of two-and-a-half hour workshops, and each day we workshopped two poets, each for an hour. In the remaining time, Young took requests. We wanted to know… everything: How to begin publishing seriously? What makes a good title? How does one improve & develop his/her writing process? And he obliged, graciously. However, what was so affirming about asking these questions was being in a room with other people who were wondering the same things I was. Furthermore, since the group was diverse and generous, we were able to offer each other heaps and heaps of advice, recommendations, and encouragement.

The community that we developed in the workshop classroom extended out onto the campus and throughout the rest of the week. As is always the case, I learned just as much chatting with my colleagues over lunch and in between lectures as I did during workshop. This was aided by the environment and atmosphere which were carefully crafted and supported by Tin House.

In addition to the workshop, each day held multiple opportunities for stimulating discussion and cross-genre consideration through lectures, seminars, and readings. This year’s faculty included: Matthew Zapruder, Mary Ruefle, Kevin Young, D.A. Powell, Jo Ann Beard, Nick Flynn, Robert Boswell, Dorothy Allison, Jonathan Dee, Anthony Doerr, Ann Hood, Kelly Link, Antonya Nelson, Dana Spiotta, Wells Tower, Joy Williams, Rachel Kushner, and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. And several special guest writers and editors made themselves available, also through seminars, lectures, one-on-one sessions, and readings.  I attended lectures by: Lacy M. Johnson on the Chronology of Memoir, Bianca Stone on Ekphrasis and Poetic Comics, Ann Hood on How to Write a Kick-Ass-Essay, Jo Ann Beard on transfiguring the Personal into the Universal, Kevin Young on the Hoax Poem, Matthew Zapruder on “the meaning” of poetry, D.A. Powell on silence in poetry, and Mary Ruefle on the Imagination. Actually, I’m getting a little hot and bothered just thinking about the innovation and intensity of these conversations! These writers questioned me in ways I wasn’t ready for, and also on matters that I desperately needed to be challenged in. Obviously, I cannot speak highly enough of my experience with the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop, but I also have to acknowledge that it’s not the only opportunity of its kind.

There are countless workshops, conferences, retreats, and residencies for writers each year, and each one offers a unique setting for creative exploration and development. Tin House’s workshop emphasizes networking and highlights the most current arguments and trends in Creative Writing. Other workshops and residences are more interested in creating a laboratory for the writing process. Still others offer interdisciplinary opportunities and even collaboration with other artists in residence. How wonderful and endless. Or, how overwhelming! If you’re thinking about pursuing an intensive writing experience, I suggest Poets & Writers’ database. (The Association of Writers & Writing Programs [AWP] also has a search engine, but I find it more difficult to navigate.) And you might think about asking yourself a few of the following questions as you vet your options:

What is my creative focus right now?

Do I have a specific project in mind?

What stage am I at in my process or project?

Do I need time & space for writing or revision? Or both?

Am I looking for feedback? What kind of feedback (peer, faculty, publisher)?

What is my budget?

What is my timeframe? What season would work best for me? How much time can I devote to this experience?

Clearly, there’s much to consider. And much to be gained. There’s more I’d like to share from my experience, but in the interest of readability, let’s call it a day. Tune in next week for “The Goods,” where I spill the beans about what Kevin Young, and other writers, think everyone should read.

What We’re Reading: Inappropriate Behavior

2014 July 10
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What We're Reading

Inappropriate Behavior

Inappropriate Behavior by Murray Farish (Milkweed Editions, 2014)

Consider all the reality shows available on television today, and it’s not difficult to conclude that viewers love people behaving badly. Now bookish sorts can turn off the tube and still get a dose of deviant deeds in Murray Farish’s new collection of short stories, Inappropriate Behavior. From strikingly realistic portraits of people struggling to maintain their sense of self in difficult circumstances to the fractured worlds of people barely holding on to reality, Inappropriate Behavior offers a range of stories that are just as voyeuristic as any reality TV show.

Farish distills the stresses facing many families today and illustrates them with shocking clarity in the title story. “Inappropriate Behavior” follows what could be considered a typical forty-something couple—George has been unemployed for months, Miranda’s struggling to keep the family afloat with her salary, and their son, Archie, has inappropriate behavior neither the school nor medical community can properly diagnose.

The strongest section of the story is a pages-long string of unrelenting questions mimicking the constant loop that must run through the minds of those who have less money coming in than going out.

Why does an American CEO earn 350 times the salary of the average worker? Because that’s what the market will bear? What are we going to do? If my child’s new school doesn’t notice that his classmates have locked him in a broom closet for three hours, does that constitute neglect? Does nobody know poor Rip Van Winkle? What are the effects of homelessness on children?

You can just hear the voice-over going into commercial: “Will George find a job? Can Miranda hang on to hers? Will the money run out? Will things ever get better? Stay tuned!” “Inappropriate Behavior” could easily be a reality show on the now profoundly misnamed TLC.

In other stories, Farish uses the immediacy of the first-person POV to create the confessional atmosphere so popular on reality TV. “Mayflies” is a particularly poignant story about Ms. Willet, a thirty-seven-year-old woman whose life is filled with heartbreak and shattered dreams. She married her high school boyfriend because she got pregnant and is stuck in the same small-minded small town she grew up in. Her older son shot and killed her younger son before joining the Marines, and her husband is slowly drinking himself to death. She works at a diner with Sandy, a “melodramatic girl who claims to have big dreams,” and Royce, “a twenty-four-year-old child already well past the apex of his powers,” who vaguely reminds her of her husband. Although she distances herself emotionally from everyone now, she still feels protective of Sandy. “I’d like to be able to tell her things. I’d like to tell her to go away, farther than Auburn. Go states away, countries away. Go and don’t come back.”

The story takes place over the course of one night, a summer night in the midst of the annual mayfly spawning season when mayflies fill the air and the surfaces of the town. Ms. Willet is restless, and when she sees Sandy kiss Royce after an apparent date, she uses her car to exact an act of self-redemption and protection for Sandy. She’s caused considerable damage but feels no remorse.

I can think in this moment, but I cannot seem to feel, so I think about what I should feel, and I don’t know. I think I should go get help. I think about the times I let Royce sleep with me. . . . I think about Buck, and how we stayed together all those years even though we only got married because of Ronnie, and then how, years later, here comes little Ford, the boy I wanted, the boy we actually made love to make. I think, Royce is someone’s child too—but she’s dead. I think I know why I did this to him, and I think it’s almost a good enough reason.

I say, “If you don’t die, you’d better by God stay away from that girl.”

But inappropriate behavior isn’t limited to actions. As Farish illustrates in “The Passage,” inaction also qualifies as inappropriate behavior. “The Passage” imagines Joe Bill, a naïve young man, sharing quarters with Lee Harvey Oswald on an ocean voyage in 1959. Joe Bill eventually reads the mysterious journals of his cabin mate and confronts him on the contents. Lee warns him that one day Joe Bill will have to deny knowing him or what was in his journal. After the Kennedy assassination, Joe Bill tells the reporters and investigators what Lee told him to say. But Joe Bill has questions of his own.

And of course, there was the biggest question of all. . . .It’s been with him every day since and will be forever, and it’s the one question he has an answer for: What did you do about it, Joe Bill? And the answer is, nothing.

Farish has a strong debut with Inappropriate Behavior. As with all short story collections, some stories are stronger than others, but even the weaker stories here don’t slow down the momentum. Inappropriate Behavior is an engaging, quick read. It’s summer, folks. Turn off the television, head outside, and sate your own voyeuristic appetite with material that’s just as juicy but much more substantive than the standard reality show fare.

Where do you prefer to get your inappropriate behavior — reality television or books? Does fictionalized inappropriate behavior work better in small doses (short stories) or big doses (novels)?


What We’re Reading: Faces in the Crowd

2014 June 26
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What We're Reading


Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli (Coffee House Press, 2014)

A mother in contemporary Mexico City writes a novel about her past. A young translator living in New York City, obsessed with the poet Gilberto Owen, finds traces of him in Harlem and on the subway. Owen loses weight, loses sight, and is slowly disappearing in 1950s Philadelphia, dreaming of his past and his prime in New York City.

Luiselli’s first novel (translated by Christina MacSweeney) tells a story of love and loss. Her writing blurs the line between life and death across three narratives that overlap in content and time, leaving much up for the reader to accept or dismiss as reality.

We read the novel that the unnamed (and unreliable) narrator in Mexico City is writing about her youth in New York. We are introduced to the eclectic acquaintances who pass through her otherwise nearly empty apartment with keys she’s given away. We watch her follow the Gilberto Owen’s past and convince her boss at a small publishing house to publish translations of Owen’s poems.

As she writes in Mexico City, she claims the novel is a “horizontal novel, told vertically”, or perhaps a “vertical novel told horizontally”; she tells her young son it’s a ghost story. Her husband asks questions about the book, revealing that she has imagined some pieces of her past, leaving it to the reader to decide what to believe is fact or fiction, who is a ghost or who is a living memory.

Eventually, Gilberto Owen joins as a narrator, and while he’s disappearing in Philadelphia, he’s remembering his past in New York City, He sees a young woman with sad, tired eyes, often on a subway train running momentarily parallel to his. Then one speeds up, and they’re no longer locked in synchronicity. This image is repeated from the perspectives of both Owen and the young translator, who impossibly meet each other at the same time and place.

The narrator reflects:

The subway, its multiple stops, its breakdowns, its sudden accelerations, its dark zones, could function as the space-time scheme for this other novel.

The stories and memories span nearly 100 years and take place in New York, Philadelphia, and Mexico City for all narrators, unhinging the reality of time and place that we understand. If you’re able to let go of that reality and follow the story the way it wants to be told, you’ll fall into the pages and believe the connections between people—ghosts or not—to be true.

At times I had to re-read pages to be sure I knew who was speaking, and most importantly, when they were speaking. Luiselli crafts her narrations to flow so seamlessly together that sometimes the last word spoken by one will be the first spoken by the next. Certain objects reoccur in many scenes, from the narrator’s red coat that Owen catches her in, to the dead tree he left in his Morningside apartment that she later discovers and attempts to revive.

The female narrator lives with the dead tree at her writing table. Based on the narratives overlapping in different time periods, you might start to believe the unreliable narrator when she says she’s writing a ghost story. She happens to find comfort in death:

In a way, I was living in a perpetual state of communion with the dead. But not in a sordid sense. In contrast, the people around me were sordid… The dead and I, no. I had read Quevedo and internalized, like a prayer, perhaps too literally, the idea of living in conversation with the dead. I often visited a small graveyard a few blocks from my apartment, because I could read and think there without anyone or anything disturbing me.

The narratives inch closer and closer together, until they meet in the same present, which was satisfying after feeling them slowly connect, piece by piece. Through the carefully crafted sentences that make up each intriguing shift in narration, the novel ends up telling just one story (where space and time are irrelevant): a story about poetry, mortality, memory, and about writing a story, the themes of which appear slowly—then all at once—in each perspective.

How does a story change when time and place are no longer relevant? When reading a novel with unreliable and shifting narrators, what can you gleam as “truth” for the story, when in our reality it’s all truly fiction?


What We’re Reading: Karate Chop

2014 May 8

What We're Reading

Karate Chop Cover

Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors (Graywolf Press, 2014)

There must be something in that Scandinavian coffee. Perhaps it’s a special dark roast. Because those Scandinavian authors can write some dark stories. The reading masses have already devoured the twisted tales of Stieg Larsson (Sweden), Jo Nesbø (Norway), and Jussi Adler-Olsen (Denmark). Now, thanks to Graywolf Press, readers can get a satisfying taste of another Danish author. Dorthe Nors’ newly translated short story collection, Karate Chop, offers just as much darkness as her fellow Scandinavians but with a bit more subtlety.

Nors does an amazing amount of writing in such a short space. Only eighty-eight pages long, Karate Chop is full of short stories, each lasting only a few pages each. But what she manages to pack into those pages delivers quite a jolt. It may seem that stories would need more space to develop properly, but Nors quickly and sharply probes her characters and their humanity, leaving the readers to judge their actions or inaction.

Not all stories in Karate Chop are dark. In the four short pages of “The Winter Garden,” Nors perfectly crystallizes a moment everyone faces in their lives—the moment a parent goes from extraordinary to ordinary. A boy goes to live with his father after his mother’s boyfriend and his two daughters move into their house. His father claims the divorce was good for him, and he’s started a hobby of gardening succulents. When his father brings home a woman and starts explaining his garden, the boy notices the woman “looking at the wallpaper in the living room.” When the boy and his father visit the woman’s home, they meet her son, and the boy also meets a stark realization.

He stuck his tongue out at my father when he wasn’t looking. That may seem like a petty thing, but it was only then that I realized that I was the only person who thought my father was someone special. It was only my way of looking at him that stopped him from being just some ordinary guy of no importance. If I didn’t like him he would basically be insignificant, and if he were insignificant, things would look pretty bad for me.

Some stories of Karate Chop also float between reality and the surreal. In stories such as “She Frequented Cemeteries,” readers are left on their own to decide how reliable the narrator is. The woman in this story seems to have finally found love.

What happened wasn’t exactly spectacular. She had met a man. That was all. . . . Her feelings were strong and reciprocated. She sensed it, yet she knew also it would take time before they could be together. He was in mourning for things he’d lost, and his mourning was unhurried.. . .

But there was no way she could explain this to her girlfriends. They demanded evidence. They wanted to know who had died, why he kept crying, and if it really wasn’t just his own fault.

To avoid her friends and the conversations she doesn’t want to have, she walks around cemeteries dreaming of her future.

In the early evening she would pass through the iron gates into Park Cemetery, stroll past the dead painters, the poets, and head for the place where the pink roses were. When she got there she would walk between the graves, and as she went she closed her eyes to the parts of reality the others were keeping a watch on and imagined the man, who could only be with her in spirit, lacing his fingers in hers. They would walk there in various scenarios, sometimes silently, but together. They would be walking there when he said he loved her. Things like that would be said as they walked side by side through the cemeteries in the various stages of their as-yet-uninitiated time together.

Unlike her Scandinavian counterparts, Dorthe Nors offers short, incisive stories that plumb the depths of humanity while offering only glimpses of the darkness that can be found there. Stories such as “The Buddhist,” “Karate Chop,” and “Female Killers” are more in line with the tradition of dark Scandinavian tales. The stories seem to be about ordinary people on the surface, but Nors weaves an undercurrent throughout the stories that leaves readers knowing something is not exactly right with these characters.

Although Karate Chop is Nors’ first English translation, she has five other novels just waiting to be translated for eager audiences. Since you can’t read her novels yet, whet your appetite with Karate Chop. You won’t even need a cup of coffee to keep you awake.

How short can short stories be and still be effective? Can a short story be too short, becoming more of a character study instead of a fully realized story?