Archive for September, 2008


Fall for the Book Begins Sunday!

September 20, 2008

…and in the process, my own life — and my occasional posts here — will likely get put on hold for a while. But it’s for a great cause: the most authors of any book festival in the D.C. area (take that, National!) and a chance to connect these writers with readers throughout Northern Virginia, D.C. and Maryland. We’ve been working all year on this, and I’m excited about the fruits of our labors. But in many ways the real work is just beginning, and there are busy days ahead.

During the next week, then, I’ll include a few updates on coming events. Tomorrow (Sunday, September 21) is the big kick-off day, with plenty of events listed below. I myself will be introducing novelist Nani Power, author of the new memoir Feed the Hungry, at the Sweet Life Cafe in downtown Fairfax at 4:30 p.m. I haven’t read the book yet, but it’s gotten plenty of great reviews already, so very much looking forward to her talk.

Then at 7:30 p.m. at Old Town Hall, journalist and memoirist Scott Huler will talk about his latest book, No-Man’s Land: One Man’s Odyssey Through the Odyssey. Several years ago, I heard Huler read from a previous book, A Little Bit Sideways: One Week Inside a NASCAR Winston Cup Race Team, and it remains to this day the most energized and exciting reading I believe I’ve ever heard. The new book is also great — part travelogue, part history lesson, part literary criticism, and part memoir too, with one man looking at his own life against the standard of literature’s greatest epic hero. It’s a terrific read.

Plenty more to choose from on Sunday. A schedule is below and the festival’s complete calendar of events is linked HERE. 


1 p.m. 
The Youngest Published Writers at Fall for the Book
Old Town Hall, 3999 University Drive, Fairfax, VA
Students from across Northern Virginia share original works selected for the two-volume Northern Virginia Writing Project anthology, Falling for the Story. NVWP sponsors the reading.

2 p.m.
D.C. Crime Writers
The Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD
Contributors to the successful D.C. Noir anthologies share stories from the grittier side of the nation’s capital. Sponsored by the Writer’s Center. 

2 p.m. 
Children’s Book Author Jerdine Nolan
Prince George’s County Library, 15210 Annapolis Road, Bowie, MD
Nolan reads from her latest picture book, Big Jabe. Sponsored by the Friends of the Sherwood Regional Library.

2 p.m.
Children’s Book Author Katy Kelly 
Sherwood Regional Library, 2501 Sherwood Hall Lane, Alexandria, VA
A former reporter for People, USA Today, and U.S. News and World Report, Kelly reads from her popular Lucy Rose books. Sponsored by the Friends of the Sherwood Regional Library.

3 p.m.
Novelist Kathleen McCleary
Circa Home & Garden, 10435 North Street, Fairfax, VA
The popular journalist — whose work has appeared in The New York Times and Good Housekeeping and on — reads from her debut novel, House and Home

3 p.m.
Young Adult Writers Beckie Weinheimer and Kathy Erskine
Old Town Hall, 3999 University Drive, Fairfax, VA
The authors discuss their books’ exploration of religion and politics and their effects on teens. Followed at 4:30 p.m. by a writing workshop for teens.

3:30 p.m.
Children’s Book Author Moira Donohue
City of Fairfax Regional Library, 10360 North Street, Fairfax, VA
A former lawyer, Donohue stresses the importance of punctuation in her charming picture books — and discusses the Supreme Court case in which she proved her point!

4 p.m.
Poet Jon Pineda
Busboys and Poets, 4251 S. Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA
The award-winning poet reads from his third collection, The Translator’s Diary. Co-sponsored by Busboys and Poets and the Friends of the Sherwood Regional Library. 

4 p.m.
Children’s Book Author Lulu Delacre
Sherwood Regional Library, 2501 Sherwood Hall Lane, Alexandria, VA
Award-winning author/illustrator shares Latin American stories and more, and discusses her first young adult book, Alicia Afterimage. Sponsored by the Friends of the Sherwood Regional Library.

4:30 p.m.
Memoirist Nani Power
The Sweet Life Café, 3950 Chain Bridge Road, Fairfax, VA
Noted novelist Power reads from her new memoir with recipes, Feed the Hungry, about growing up in Virginia. Co-sponsored by the Sweet Life Café and the City of Fairfax.

6 p.m.
So to Speak Faculty and Fellows Reading
Old Town Village, North Street at Route 123, Fairfax
George Mason University faculty members, including Helon Habila, Sally Keith and Kyoko Mori, and fellowship winners, including Elizabeth Eshelman, Alyson Foster, Sarah Klenakis, and Robb St. Lawrence, read from their recent works. Sponsored by the Mason journal So To Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art. For extra fun, grab a drink or some food at any area restaurants near the reading!

7 p.m.
Political Journalist Amy Sullivan
Fairfax Presbyterian Church, 10723 Main Street, Fairfax, VA
A national correspondent for Time Magazine discusses her new book, The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap. Sponsored by the City of Fairfax.

7 p.m.
Historian Clint Johnson
Arlington Central Library, 1015 N. Quincy Street, Arlington, VA
The noted Civil War expert discusses the escape and pursuit of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Sponsored by the Arlington Library.

7:30 p.m.
Memoirists Honor Moore and Scott Huler
Old Town Hall, 3999 University Drive, Fairfax, VA
Acclaimed poet and memoirist Moore reads from her new book, The Bishop’s Daughter, examining the secret life of her late father, Paul Moore, Bishop of the Diocese of New York. National Public Radio regular Huler takes a journey into mythic Greece, modern Greece and the first days of middle age with No-Man’s Land: One Man’s Odyssey Through the Odyssey. A reception precedes the reading.

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A Death in the News

September 19, 2008

Since David Foster Wallace’s death last week, writers and critics around the world have been examining anew Wallace’s influence on American and international literature — and even going so far as to say that his individual death reflects the death of something greater in literature in general: the end of the novel? or at least the passing of an era?

Wallace’s death and these resulting comments have cast a long shadow, and with all that attention it might be easy to miss somehow the death of another great writer, James Crumley, who has exerted himself a tremendous influence on many of today’s crime writers and who passed away earlier this week. Even I missed it.

Little time here to reflect on that passing, except to point readers to an article in today’s Washington Post which gives a quick look at Crumley’s accomplishments and his influence. The article also quotes the opening line to Crumley’s best-known novel, 1978’s The Last Good Kiss — a line which ranks high on the canon of great openers in all literature, genre or otherwise. It’s worth repeating here:

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonora, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

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Exercising Twice in the Same Week?

September 17, 2008

After borrowing a couple of exercises from Natalie Goldberg’s latest for my last post, I trotted out another great writing exercise for the fiction workshop I taught Monday night. (That’s not me in the picture, incidentally; I stole this illustration from the website for the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.)

This exercise comes courtesy of Peter Klappert, former professor of poetry and creative non-fiction (autobiography) at Mason, and one of the professors from whom I learned the most, despite his not even teaching in my chosen genre. (It’s not Peter in the picture either, btw. Really, this came from somewhere in the Bush administration.)

This seems a simple exercise, but it’s also a great one in many ways — whatever your level of skill. I’m including it here almost exactly as Peter presented it in his own assignments, and with two excerpts from students in his class, who granted him permission to use their work in conjunction with this exercise (and I hope that such permission may be transferrable somehow, since I’m already risking some pretty stiff Republican wrath by borrowing illustrations from their websites).

All kidding aside: Now that Peter’s not teaching, this great exercise deserves better than to retire with him.

Write two descriptions of yourself, IN THE THIRD PERSON, doing something. You may describe anything at all — a physical activity such as cooking or washing or making love, or a mental activity such as thinking or daydreaming. You may use the same activity in both descriptions or different activities — but DO draw on the same period in your life for each description. Please do NOT rely heavily on dialogue.

By the END of each description, the reader should know or be capable of an informed guess about:

  1. Your approximate age
  2. Your approximate physical description (enough to BEGIN to form an image of you)
  3. How you spend a large part of your time at this point in your life
  4. The occupation of one parent (and being a homemaker IS an occupation)
  5. The season of the year
  6. The region of the country to at least the specificity of state
  7. A position held by you or some member of your family on a controversial social or political issue
  8. A favorite movie, book, TV program or musical performer of you or some member of your family
  9. A favorite color, beverage or food of some member of your family

Neither description should be more than 1 or 1.5 double-spaced pages (so three pages max TOTAL). Although neither needs to be a complete story, both should make sense as fragments.

Sounds easy? Just wait. Here’s the catch.

In the first description (the “direct” description), you may state all facts directly. Don’t just make a list, however, or be minimalistic; instead write the fullest, richest, most vivid “direct” version that you can. It can be done in one sentence, but I wouldn’t recommend it: “When Ichabod was an artichoke-colored little bookworm of seven, he spent his afternoons at the Library of Congress comparing editions of Sade’s Philosophe dans le boudoir while his mother, thinly dressed in Chinese red in the icy January drizzle, was out corrupting the sex-crazed evangelists and repressed Republicans who cruise the streets behind the U.S. Capitol.”

In the second description (the “indirect” description), you may NOT NOT NOT refer directly to any of the required information. The facts must emerge by implication, by however you do what you are doing and by slant references.

Here are a couple of excerpts from examples of “indirect descriptions” that Peter provided to the class: I’m not retyping enough to give you the full list of ingredients, but I think you’ll get the drift. The first is by Margaret Patterson:

The captain was letting her use the Company Commander’s office. At first she had the wild notion to do it in the CO’s chair, but opted for the orange plastic-covered couch. It had more room. Standing by the couch, she unbuttoned her BDU jacket, pulled her t-shirt out of her pants, reached under and undid her bra, letting her left breast fall free. It was hard and gorged with milk. She sat down and crossed one leg over her knee, her shiny black boots reflecting the light. Then she cuddled Bryan in her lap and let him find her breast. Lord! If her father could see this, he would swallow his teeth. ‘Only three kinds of women enlist in the Army and don’t tell me you are any one of them! If you really want to go, finish college and be an officer.’ He insisted on a good four-year college, where she would be able to meet eligible, future professionals. After a lot of begging, and a talk with the major, he finally agreed that she could try to ROTC after her sophomore year at that small, private, Lutheran college she attended. But she hated it there and didn’t finish out her freshman year. She enlisted after he died. Christ! He must be rolling in his grave…


AND here’s another excerpt, this one from Gwen McVay:

She twists her dangling watch around and checks the time: fifty-five minutes until algebra, lots of time. She climbs onto the narrow window ledge, a tight squeeze, even for her, with her back against cinderblocks and her sneakers wedged against the sill. From her backpack, she takes a folder: she riffles through and chooses a few sheets of rough, expensive department letterhead, which she turns over. Laying one hand flat on the corner of the paper, she looks out the window and begins to sketch the outline of the Allegheny foothills with the stub of a #2. Shading quickly, she fills in the monadnocks with orange and brown-colored pencils, choosing an already well-worn dark green to add pines among the shag of oaks. She works steadily but fidgets, chewing her ponytail or picking black fuzz from her sweater….

Up to the challenge? Try it yourself.


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Jump-starting the Writing Day (or Night)

September 15, 2008

“A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people,” said Thomas Mann, and it’s a quote that now peppers blogs and other sites across the web. One of the most difficult things about writing is often just getting started each day, whether you’re facing a blank page (or blank screen) or faced with an endlessly-piling sheaf of pages, thousands of words to be sorted, arranged, fixed — in that most awful and dreaded of terms: revised. 

It’s become almost a hackneyed question posed to successful writers: How do you write? What’s your routine? pencil, pen, computer? morning, night? standing, sitting, leaned back in the bathtub? Still, I understand the impetus behind the question — this sense that the right circumstances might be most conducive to what is, for many of us, a painful process. And those writers’ answers can sometimes be illuminating and helpful: At a Writer’s Center event not long ago, Ann Hagedorn said that she played the same music each time she sat down to write — a new piece for each new book she embarked on — and that eventually the melodies playing out became synonymous with the process of her mind gearing up to write, triggering her to get to work. (I’ve adopted this myself: In her case, it was some piece of classical music; for my own novel-in-progress, it’s Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth.) 

When my friend Kyle gets ready for a rare day of his own writing (see Saturday’s post), he always reads first, he tells me — reads something, as I understand it, that will immerse him quickly in language, in the way another writer has thought and written, but not enough that he subconsciously adopts another’s style. Once he’s read a little, then he turns to his own work and his own words. It’s a warm-up of sorts.

Another good warm-up is a writing exercise — one perhaps entirely separate from the novel or other project itself. My fiancée, Tara, and I sometimes embark on one of these simultaneously, just as a way of limbering up the mind and the fingers. Plenty of books out there offer advice and guidance to aspiring writers — I’ve got a backlog of them both from classes I took in grad school and from classes I’ve been teaching myself in more recent years — and Tara and I have found that these are fun ways to get the creative juices flowing quickly OR (even better) to remind us that writing can actually be FUN. I want to share one new source for these exercises here.

Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, has recently published another book on writing — her first on the subject in 20 years. Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir offers up mini-essays and a vast array of exercises to help aspiring writers “pick up the pen, and kick some ass.” Some of these are little more than prompts for 10-minutes free-writes (or even shorter, three-minute “sprints”), but Goldberg prefaces them with thoughtful and provocative meditations on writing (and on life) that might provide inspiration for memoirists, novelists, short story writers and more. Here’s the one we tried recently:

“What was outside your bedroom window? Go for ten.”

Simple and straightforward — maybe even a little dull — but the short paragraphs that we compared at the end of those ten minutes showed us thinking in vastly different directions and opened up ideas for other stories.  

Here’s another, just chosen here at random (the way Tara and I usually choose these) but clearly a little more complex and a little more challenging:

Often we are pulled between two places. They can be where you were brought up versus where you live now; a country place versus a city place; the sea versus the plains. What are the two places the pull at you? (Of course, there might be more, but for right now distill it to two.) Often they are projections of our inner psyche.

Go. Ten minutes. Tell us about them. Give us the pull, the conflict, the desire. Write.

Not a bad exercise to get folks writing or thinking like writers or even just thinking. I’ll try to post some more soon, from other books, but glad to give a quick plug to Goldberg’s latest here.

Finally, speaking of navigating different aspects of your past and your persona, this morning’s Washington Post has an interesting and even intimate appreciation of David Foster Wallace, who hanged himself last week. The story, by Monica Hesse, whose father taught with Wallace at Illinois State University, offers a brief but revealing look at the man behind the work and one of the towns in which he lived.


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Working For The Arts; Creating Your Own Art

September 13, 2008
Typewriter, Photo-Collage by Jules White, borrowed without permission but with a nice link

Typewriter, Photo-Collage by Jules White, borrowed without permission but with a nice link

On Thursday night, my friend Kyle — a fine fiction writer and now an accomplished translator as well — was talking about his still relatively new job as Publications & Communications Manager for The Writer’s Center. Kyle seems to love the job and strikes me as being good at it: at generating new ideas for building the Writer’s Center’s audience and its exposure throughout the community, at building connections and partnerships with other arts organizations, at networking generally. He talks passionately about the organization and about his work for it. But when asked how his own writing was going… well, he says he just hasn’t had time lately. Translating he can do, but the act of writing new fiction or revising his novel-in-progress requires some time and mental energy that he just can’t find at the beginning or the end of a long day working in the arts.

I echoed his feeling. My own novel-in-progress was very much IN progress until about a month ago when school started up (and lesson plans and grading) and when the literary festival that I work with, Fall for the Book, began requiring more time and attention. I told Kyle on Thursday, without much exaggeration, that as soon as I answered one email query or completed one task on my to-do list for the festival, another — or often two — popped up in its place.

On Friday morning, the day after our talk, a Washington Post article announced that Dana Gioia plans to step down as chairman of the NEA in January. He said that he’s accomplished most of what he set out to do in his six years at the helm of one of the nation’s hallmark arts institutions, but he also said that he needed more time to work on his own poetry: “I really want to get back to my writing,” he said. “I haven’t had time for my own writing. I write all the time for the NEA, official writing. Since I have become chairman, I have not published a single poem.”

I don’t mean to compare too closely the level of work and responsibility that Dana Gioia does with the jobs that Kyle and I and others like us have, but I couldn’t help but be struck by the common refrain: We work for the arts at the expense of our own arts.

Other friends, fellow aspiring writers, have purposefully sought out jobs where they don’t write, don’t work in conjunction with the arts, and (in many cases) don’t have much of a heavy workload at all. Day jobs, they call them, and they like just those qualities: check in at the beginning of the day, check out at the end, save the real work for later. Some of these jobs are tough, of course, and even the greatest, most successful writers have led double-careers: Everyone points to Wallace Stevens, of course, and his long career for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. (But then you also have Faulkner, who lost his job as a postmaster because he ignored customers and dumped people’s mail in the trash rather than sell stamps or deliver letters at the expense of his writing time.) 

For those of us working in areas which seem most in tune with our passions — literature in our cases — it’s odd that the very organizations we serve can also exhaust those passions, replacing our commitment to our own work, our own writing, with a subservience to others’ works. Tough to feel bad about spreading the word on good reading and good writing — it’s a great gig! But also tough to come to terms with pushing your own work to the side to do it.

Not a complaint entirely; just an observation.

I wish I was headed back to my novel now, but there are seven student stories waiting to be read for Monday’s workshop and another to-do list that’s probably grown while I’ve taken this quick break here.

— Art Taylor

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