Thursday, December 15, 2011

Reading Tips for the Microphone-shy

Photo: +fatman+

Sarah recently posted here on Grout about the benefits of reading one's work for an audience. Like Sarah, I find reading my work aloud for other to be incredibly helpful to my writing process. But unlike Sarah, I utterly dread public speaking and just thinking about reading my own writing for an audience can give me a near panic attack.

However, over time I've discovered a few things that have helped me reign in those panic freak-outs. I'm still not, and probably never will be, one of those dynamic speakers that can enthrall and audience, but at least I don't entirely dread getting up on a stage any more. So for the benefit of all you other microphone-shy writers, here are my top survival tips for giving readings:

1. Become a kinky librarian

OK, so you don’t actually need to become a librarian or be all that kinky, but imagining yourself as another character can do wonders to calm your nerves. And yes, my character happens to be a kinky librarian.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Reading and Writing and...

I come from a long line of storytellers.  This probably drew me to writing, the natural progression from orating to authorship.  Most of the things I write now have begun as stories I tell at parties.  I feel very fortunate that public speaking doesn’t make me want to hide in the nearest crack in the floorboards and I sympathize with people for whom public speaking ranks scarier than death on their list of biggest fears. (A large part of the population feels this way, it seems; Jerry Seinfeld once quipped that most people at a funeral would rather be in the casket than standing at the podium giving the eulogy.)  At first glance, writing appears to be a remote activity, one that allows the author to express his or her thoughts without having to leave the comforts of the couch.  Passive.  Safe.
But reading work aloud makes writing less of a lonely endeavor and more of a collective experience, a connection between the writer/reader and the audience/listener.  As someone who has participated in dozens of readings, I have discovered several benefits of reading one’s work aloud, and I encourage anyone who considers herself serious about writing to participate in at least one reading this year.  Why?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The 'I'

CNF is a lot about new angles, new perspectives. Our personal perspectives are always shifting, and they are always unique to us, to our lives. Well. Earlier this week, I reached for my iPad. I was dozing on the couch, and I had lost the iPad somewhere in the folds of the comforter I was wrapped in. When I found it, the screen was face down and the etched text on the back was wrong side up—so completely backwards. It was a great moment to reflect on one of the iPad’s ingenuities—its ability to reorient the screen to suit how you hold it. The back cover of course does not reorient, but upsidedown words can be considered as lines and shapes and not letters. And I noticed, beside the neat symmetry of the ‘P’ and ‘d’, the ‘i’ in iPad is a perfect exclamation point. I can’t claim to know why the teams over at Apple named the iPad iPad, but that first letter is another case of brilliant design. It evokes the inverted exclamation point, and it is inseparable from the word. iPad (notice how even at the beginning of a sentence, it is not IPad) comes with its own excitement, its own fervor, its own life. Just great marketing? What about our need for these devices, are they sparked by the urgency in the name? Is it really so wrong to be excited? The inverted exclamation point is unique to the Spanish language. Its expression seems almost parallel to the English exclamation point, only it comes at the beginning of a sentence. In English punctuation, the exclamation point signals commands, energetic or passionate statements, statements of disbelief, or even statements made in times of duress. All connote motion, the slant forward of iTalics (couldn’t resist), the present. The Now, never the past. The movement toward the pressing future. I find excitement, too, in how that lowercase iPad ‘i’ has come to be synonymous with ‘I’, that power player of CNF. And by extension, the i/I is also kin to the inverted exclamation point; it is a signal forward. The i/I is interesting, compelling, never at rest. Which leads to what every CNF writer must do: exclaim. Declare. Insist on your relevance, your design, how essential you are. Write your i/I into the world, and let it connote urgency, fervor, passion, life.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Tales From a Great Workshop

Workshopping. That word, I think, conjures up a visceral reaction in nearly everyone who has taken part in one, and often that reaction isn’t positive. I have been in workshops that felt petty and pointless, workshops that felt less like writers helping each another and more like crows picking apart roadkill.
When workshops are handled well, though, they can be indispensable. Because no matter how long we’ve been writing, we still can’t get enough distance from our own work to be completely objective about it. Workshopping provides that little reality check from others who are less invested, but it also can answer some BIG QUESTIONS: Is what we’re trying to say actually getting across on the page? Does our work match up with our intentions? A good workshop can show us little veins of gold shimmering in places we didn’t even know were there. But a great workshop does even more. It lets us see possibilities in our writing even when the work being discussed isn’t our own.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Who Needs Memoir When We Have Facebook?

Last month Facebook introduced Timeline, a new profile design that attempts to create the story of your life, starting from the moment you were born. It essentially turns the social media site into a mini memoir machine:

Of course mini-memoirs like this video and the examples on the info page are really just a form of PR developed in support of each of our personal brands. These aren't stories that try to make sense of the painful or incomprehensible parts of life. There is no divorce, miscarriage, death here -- only the awesome things that we're doing with all our awesome, photogenic friends.

But as the social web continues to be integrated into our lives, it becomes more difficult to keep the messier, more complicated parts of actual life separate from our online stories.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Write Wherever/Whenever? Yes, You SCan!

The way you define yourself as a writer is that you write every time you have a free minute. If you didn't behave that way you would never do anything.
                                                     -John Irving

The picture to the right shows my writing desk. Made of solid wood and topped with a plate of glass, this desk sits next to a window overlooking trees and a nice view of the Ford Parkway Tower. Each one of the desk’s drawers is crammed with writing utensils, paper, items of inspiration to help me compose. I have a comfy chair and a cushy couch if the desk isn’t doing it (or, more likely, is covered with papers). There’s also the Hamline Bush Library, with its variety of tables, carrel desks, and overstuffed chairs. Any one of these would make a good writing spot and you might think I get most of my pages written at these places.

Except you’d be wrong. Most of my writing happens at work.

Before you contact my boss to get me in trouble (or steal my job), I should tell you what I do. I work in an office as an administrative assistant, and after I’ve set out the coffee, checked the electronic documents, alphabetized the filing, and typed any dictations in my inbox, my duty is to scan each file from the prior year onto a database and then shred the file. I really like my job but I like the scanning part of my job the least of any task. It basically entails making sure each page goes through the scanner smoothly, the office equivalent of watching paint dry. But it gives me lots of time to think. And thinking, for me, equals writing.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Early Bird: Grabbing the Words Before Sunrise

If I could, I would write only when I’m inspired, when the sun hits the walls of my office at just the right angle, when I’m alone in a silent house, have finished off my cup of French press coffee and read a little poetry to put me in the mood. I would look out my oversized window at the ducks skating over the pond and the poplars swaying in the wind, lean back in my chair, close my eyes and wait until that perfect idea, that perfect word, entered my head. I would write it down and keep going. I would build up steam as the hours flew by, losing myself completely until it hit me that morning has become afternoon.

Oh, the dreams we dream.

Fact is, there’s no pond outside my window, no swaying poplars or cute little ducks. All I can see is the dirty gray vinyl of my neighbor’s garage ten feet away, which blocks out most of the light. There’s no coffee, just me and my morning breath. And if I waited until I was inspired to write, I wouldn’t be writing at all, because that only seems to happen when I’m washing dishes or brushing my son’s teeth and there is no paper or computer in sight.

Most of my writing happens before 6:30 a.m. This is not because I’m a morning person. Far from it. But the fact is, I have a three-year-old and other commitments taking up most of my day, and early mornings are usually quiet and they’re my only guaranteed times to write. I wear my pajamas and slippers. Sometimes I brush my teeth. I am not a morning person, but I have found that in the morning at least I have my subconscious going for me, my half-awake dream state.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Hamline's Colloquium Chock Full of Good Advice

A little over a week ago, recent graduates of the newly renamed Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University presented words of wisdom and advice for new and current students about their capstone projects during the 24th Annual Colloquium.  
Addie Zierman, who wrote a memoir, How to Talk Evangelical, spoke about the difficulties of publishing CNF as an unknown author.  Her book was picked up pretty quickly by an agent, but multiple publishers passed on the basis that she didn’t have a web presence or “platform.”  Addie explained that the publishers told her they really liked the book but were wary about publishing her work.  Her agent suggested she develop her platform--via blogging, twitter, and other social networks--before moving further into the publishing phase.  Although I found this somewhat disheartening--shouldn’t a writer's work stand on its own?--I’m glad I learned this before I finish my own creative nonfiction book and attempt to publish it.  

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

On Having "Characters" Read Your Writing

Photo: camil tulcan
I've never shared my writing with those who appear in it (those "characters" who happen to be actual living people) in order to get their input before a piece is published. This isn't because I don't care about how these people feel. I just didn't really believe that the essays I sent out would actually be published.

Then earlier this year I was fortunate to have a couple of pieces published. Both of these essays portray my mother as a less than ideal mother-character, at least in any sort of traditional sense. So with some apprehension, I sent these pieces to my mother after they were already published. Luckily she loved them and had no objections to how she was portrayed.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Pop Up But Do Less

I don't always make New Year's resolutions, but this year I decided to live bolder. Kind of vague, I know, but it's something I've thought about a lot lately. I used to have a lot more self-confidence but moving to Minnesota and attempting to make a go of this writing thing has made me question myself a lot. I guess we artists really are a fragile breed. So when my friend, Sara, asked me to go to Costa Rica with her, I hesitated a little. I thought about the money and the time I'd have to take off of work. But then I remembered my resolution and said yes.

Sara found the trip on LivingSocial, and if you get a chance to take an all-inclusive trip to Costa Rica (or even a non-all-inclusive trip), I recommend it. The ease of travel impressed me the most: the trip included all of our accommodations, breakfast, and transportation; most of the people spoke English, we didn't need to exchange money and conversions were a breeze, plus it is only one time zone over (they're on Mountain Time...although I'm guessing they don't call it that...) so no jet lag.  We ended up going during the rainy season, which lived up to its name, but despite the daily downpour we managed to pack a lot in.

Monday, July 11, 2011

An Interview with Ryan Van Meter

Ryan Van Meter’s collection of linked essays, If You Knew Then What I Know Now, was published by Sarabande Books in April. His essays have been anthologized in The Best American Essays 2009 and the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction.

In If You Knew Then What I Know Now, Van Meter writes about growing up gay in the suburban Midwest, about gender and masculinity, and coming out. With poetic language and profound empathy, the book essentially examines how we learn to love.

Van Meter recently visited Minneapolis from San Francisco to read at Magers and Quinn as part of Gay Pride week and generously took time out for a conversation with me about this collection.

Monday, June 6, 2011

On Journal Editing

In my two years at Hamline, I have had many opportunities to participate in journal editing, most recently as CNF Assistant Editor for Water~Stone Review and Editor-in-Chief of rock, paper, scissors

You’ve heard it before:  editing is as much an art as writing, and it helps hone talented writers as much as editors.  It’s easy to say and know that sitting on the other side of the submission table changes the approach to the submission process, but it’s another thing to discover and experience that change for yourself.  Of course, we can’t all fit it into our lives (though working with rock, paper, scissors can be as minimal as a month commitment.)  So, here are some things I picked up: 

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Mine the gap: anatomy of a lyric memoir

In my former life as a journalist, we had a saying: Gathering string. It meant going out and collecting unconnected facts and figures that led to other facts and figures that led to others, and still others ... all of which would lead to something more, a story that revealed something new or captured an interesting slice of life.

We accumulated. We hoarded our bits of string and twigs for the future, collecting more than we knew we would really need.

Then one day, we decided we had gathered enough. It was time to turn that string into a story.

But what if the string we sought could not be found, no matter how hard we searched? What if the facts and figures were wiped away by death, silence, forgetting?

In her 2006 memoir A Family of Strangers, the late Deborah Tall pulled off the seemingly impossible. She tracked down every piece of string she could, found that it barely fit inside a thimble ... and made it sing anyway. And what of the material not available to her, the material irretrievably lost? She turned those into the gaps that held the book together.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Reality Hunger: A Discussion via Homage

This past Wednesday students from Hamline met to discuss David Shields’ newest book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto under the moderation of professor Barrie Jean Borich.  In the spirit of the book, I am posting quotes from the evening, some of which are verbatim and some of which I edited for clarity, context, or simply because I didn’t catch the full phrase.  I didn’t include everything, and they aren’t necessarily in order, but unlike Shields, I believe attribution is important so I’ve used the students’ first names.  And I apologize if I misquoted someone. 
I think it’s a defensive lyric essay via an attack on narrative fiction.
I would add that it is a personal manifesto or manifestation of what is a viable genre/nongenre.
It seemed to be more personal essaying than cultural manifesto.
It was very crass. “I like this; I don’t like that.” It was egotistical or it comes off that way, could be read that way.  At times I thought, Oh please.
I found it interesting that he left some people, who I consider important and influential, out: Annie Dillard, Katherine Norris, Mary Karr. I tried to read the titles as one long poem but it didn’t quite work.
I found it interesting that he had a section about persona, but I didn’t feel like I knew his persona or whose mind I was reading. 

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Equation of Erasure

Erasure poetry is a form of found poetry. Here is how an erasure is created. Take a page from any text. Find words that leap at you, words you want to consider, or words that speak to one another. Then cover up or remove the rest of the words, which usually means covering-up or removing most of the words, leaving only a few.

For example, if you cover your unchosen words with a red Sharpie, what remains is a page with selected & scattered words, plus, some horizontal red stripes. Essentially, the act of erasure is one of creating new relationships via form. If erasure were written as a mathematical equation, it might look like this:
(Text + Visual art) – text = Erasure Poetry

Last month, I attended a program about erasure. It was held at the Walker Art Center, and co-sponsored by Rain Taxi Review. While Eric Lorberer gave a brief introduction to the evening and the artists, Travis McDonald, Janet Holmes, and Matthea Harvey, I perused the program-brochure for background information.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Mortenson, Lying, Cheating, & Self-Mythologizing

Laura Miller at Salon recently posted her take on the Greg Mortenson memoir scandal. She argues that the fabrications in "Three Cups of Tea" are irrelevant compared to Mortenson's misuse of charitable contributions for his own gain. She writes:
"It's unfortunate that the Mortenson affair is being presented as a publishing scandal rather than a philanthropic one, because the case against the author (the lying) is less compelling than the case against the nonprofit director (the cheating)."
Reading this, part of me wanted to shout: Yes! Finally someone is pointing out how misleading donors was much more damaging than misleading readers. But unfortunately this argument is an oversimplification, ignoring how the lies in the book are inextricably tied to, and led to, the philanthropic disaster.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


Just a few days ago, I turned in my thesis 1 draft. What I had expected to feel was a sense of triumph, of exultation, of a certain tada! But as I had missed the office hours at the GLS house by about twenty minutes, my only recourse was to slip my manila envelope of pages between the two doors out front and walk away. Alone. There was no applause. There was no parade. There was no mayor around to shake my hand and give me the key to the city.

No one had warned me about the end of thesis 1 as being... well... totally anti-climactic.

Friday, April 15, 2011

rock, paper, scissors Call to All Current Hamline GLS Students

rock, paper, scissors Call for Editorial Board Members and Submissions
Openings on all boards:  poetry, fiction, and CNF
Open only to current Hamline GLS students
Serving on a board does not bar you from submitting (though you can't vote for your own piece; it's not that kind of opportunity:))
If interested, send an email with your contact info and preferred genre to or ASAP. 

For submitting, see info below.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Dog Books in Drag, or a Poet's Take on Writing Prose

Mark Doty considers himself a poet, and for good reason. He's written twelve books of poetry, and his latest collection, Fire to Fire, won the National Book Award for poetry in 2008. He's also the only American poet to win the U.K.-based T.S. Eliot award. But the prolific New Yorker has also written five books of prose, including Dog Years, a memoir revolving around his two retrievers (golden and black) that became a New York Times bestseller in 2007. On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, Doty came to the St. Paul Central Library to read some of his work and talk about writing. He also waxed poetic about loss, goats and walls, among other things.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Before You Say Yes to That MFA Program Offer: Questions for the Campus Visit

For this application year’s MFA hopefuls fortunate enough to receive one or more offers from programs, the April 15 deadline for your yes or no is looming. To which romantically remote creative haven will you be packing yourself off in the next six months? How can you think about being discerning when you’re so dizzy from dancing around the room with your acceptance letter clutched to your breast?

Two years ago I was not so much trying to decide where or whether to go to grad school as I was reeling from the congratulatory phone calls and squealing every 15 minutes at having won this lottery, unspeakably grateful that I had been “chosen” and, moreover, that I had a reason to move out of my mother’s house. After sending off 17 applications and more than $2000, then sliding into months of extreme anxiety that necessitated medication (this was not helped by checking the MFA blogs every 30 seconds, 16 hours a day), there was no question of whether I would go if I got in. I was going.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Kazim Ali Leaves an Important Message

I returned home after poetry class, arms loaded with backpack, purse, cell phone, and the mail I’d just snagged on the way up my steep and icy drive. Inside the kitchen, boots stomped off, I hit the blinking play button on my answering machine, all the while opening cupboards, looking for quick food.

A man’s voice streamed out of the machine, his base pitch, the clipped words, and I didn’t recognize any of it, but he was speaking to me about things he thought I should know, something about his mother's heart surgery and not to worry, she was doing fine, but there was more bad news…

At this point, I hit the play button to start over, and what I heard was this, “Hello Elizabeth, this is Kazim Ali, and I just wanted to let you know that my mother had surgery on her heart…”

Monday, February 28, 2011

Little Utopias and Blurring the Lines

Not too long ago, I went to the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis to watch Utopia in Four Movements, a documentary that generated plenty of buzz at the 2010 Sundance Festival. Created by San Francisco filmmakers Sam Green and Dave Cerf, it turned out to be a documentary and then some, with the extra lime twist of being live. Green was there, in person, on stage, narrating beside a screen that flashed a series of archival and original material, still and moving images. Meanwhile, a live band (The Brooklyn-based group The Quavers) played a live soundtrack. You couldn’t wait and watch this later on DVD or on your iPad or iPhone. You had to be there to watch Green riff on his four examples of 20th-century hopefulness, or you missed it, as simple as that.

So was it a documentary or a performance that I witnessed with hundreds of others that evening? It was something different, something in between. Naturally, this got me thinking about CNF, which often butts against definition, where the lines between it and other genres constantly get blurred. Part of the excitement of CNF is the way it pushes the boundaries, mutating in directions previously unimagined.

Friday, February 25, 2011

I Swear I'm Not Stalking You, Ira Sukrungruang: My Experience at AWP, Part 2

The side picture is from the Hamline University table at the AWP Bookfair.  (Check out those neat Grout bookmarks.)  For those of you who have never been there, the bookfair is kind of chaotic but a great place to spot some of your favorite writers.  Our table was two tables over from the table run by Sweet, an online literary confection, and often Ira Sukrungruang could be found working there.  I have only read a few pieces by him, but we are reading Talk Thai this semester, I heard him read at Barrie's panel last year, and he is the 2011 Hamline Summer Writing Workshop guest CNF writer, so I was really excited to see him.  Maybe too excited.  I would comment every time he appeared.  "There's Ira again!"  "Or Ira's back, I hope he doesn't notice me looking at him."  But I never had the guts to go introduce myself.

I planned to have Barrie (Barrie Jean Borich, beloved CNF professor at Hamline) introduce me to him after their panel together this year, but I chickened out and she had to dash to a second panel.  The panel they sat on, Bodies Politic, was amazing, though.  And not just because it had such great writers (along with Barrie and Ira it had Judith Barrington, Ann Pancake, Brian Teare, and Kekla Magoon).  Each of the writers said fascinating things about writing about the body and the politics involved sometimes, whether it is because of gender/sexuality issues, disability, geography or regional characters, size concerns, or the intense connection between body and memory.  I could write an entire blog posting just about this panel, but if you ever get a chance to hear these writers speak, or read some of their work, do it.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Colorful Tights, Bad Carpeting, and (Un)ironic Beards: My Experience at AWP, Part 1

The annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference met last weekend at the Marriott Hotel in Washington D.C. For those of you who were not in attendance, I will be recapping the experience in a two-part blog. I attended AWP for the first time last year in Denver, and I found it overwhelming, in part because I tried to cram as many sessions into my day as possible. By the end of it my brain hurt. This year, I picked my top two panels each day and stuck to them. I spent as much time at the bookfair as I did in panel sessions, and I focused on what I believe the main idea behind AWP is: networking and mind-melding with other writers. The venue was lovely, despite our somewhat disappointing table placement at the bookfair and the carpeting, which someone likened to the floor of a casino (see the photo above).

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Starting to Pay Attention to This e-Book Thing

Despite the fact that I am both a writer and a bit of a tech freak, up to this point I've been pretty uninterested in the discussions about e-book publishing. Granted, this  is probably partly because the term "e-" anything seems to be straight out the awkward web-talk of the 1990s. But also because digital books just seem like an inevitable next step in the evolution of publishing. A phenomenon with little immediate relevance to writers.

However over the past week there's been a flurry of news about digital publishing that has me paying attention and thinking about how it could eventually influence my writing.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Q&A: Ana Maria Spagna

Ana Maria Spagna won the the 2009 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize for Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus, an account of her search to understand her father's role in the civil rights movement.

In 1957, her father, Joseph Spagna, rode a bus in Tallahassee, Florida, with five other young men who planned to get arrested and take their case to their U.S. Supreme Court. In her book, Spagna chronicles her journey to learn what really happened. Last fall, from her home in the remote town of Stehekin, Washington, she answered some questions about how her book came to be.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Dillard's Cat Box

How We Begin

My daughter-in-law stood next to the bathtub holding a bottle of bleach and plastic gloves. From the living room I could see Anna, her long legs and blonde locks. She wore an old gray sweatshirt and tight jeans, and even with my professional background as a midwife, I could hardly tell she’s expecting. 

My son and his wife had learned that pregnant women should avoid exposure to the cat-carried protozoan, toxoplasmosis, and its chemical destroyer, chlorine. Still, it had taken three days of Anna gently, but repeatedly mentioning the week-old litter boxes. And now, with four cats in their one-bedroom apartment—windows closed against January—the fetid fumes had become too much. Even for Jake.