Posts Tagged ‘Natalie Goldberg’


Matthew Vollmer Visits Triangle Bookstores

March 25, 2009

More than two months ago, I began asking when some of North Carolina’s bookstores might be hosting a visit by Matthew Vollmer, an N.C. native and author of the great new short story collection Future Missionaries of America. I had the great honor of interviewing Vollmer about his debut book back in January, and I can’t tell you how pleased I am to know that two Triangle bookstores will be hosting Vollmer this week: Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on Thursday, March 26, at 7:30 p.m., and McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village on Friday, March 27, at 2 p.m.

Talking about the craft to which he’s dedicated himself, Vollmer is both charming, insightful and surprising — qualities that can also be used to describe his fiction. Just to give readers a taste, here’s the opening paragraph to the title story of the new collection: 

It’s sleeting on Valentine’s Day. I’m in the back booth of the Franklin Street McDonald’s, waiting for Melashenko to deliver the robotic baby we’re supposed to keep from suffering the slings and arrows of an unhappy infanthood, and writing him a letter on a napkin with the emergency topless ballpoint I keep in a hole in the lining of my hoodie. I write a I. in the corner of the first napkin and below that the date, February 14, 2003. I consider adding a little arrow-pierced heart, but I don’t want to conjure even the smallest of question marks in Melashenko’s head, so instead I draw a phantom heart in the air above the paper, which only confirms that I should definitely not draw it for real and that hearts are even more dangerous than sentimental closing signatures like Love or Love ya or Yours, any of which could inspire Melashenko to think I might think or even hope that we’re anything more than we are. So, potentially disastrous heart drawing averted, I begin the letter, as usual, with Dear Melashenko (his first name’s David but I use his last because I like the way it sounds, plus it ensures that I maintain a certain level of formality). Ten minutes later I’ve scribbled seven napkins’ worth of words, which I roll in a floppy scroll. I snap a hair band around the middle and draw the letters of his name down the side in the Gothiest font I can muster, to give it this look like it might’ve been written by an ancient scribe, one who’d dreamed of future devastations and consigned them to this fragile parchment, to be delivered on this date to the father of a baby who’s never been born.

And if you think the opening is good, just wait for the story’s remarkable twists and unforgettable finish. And don’t miss Vollmer’s visit to the Triangle this week.

Also noteworthy on this week’s literary calendar for the Triangle and Eastern North Carolina:

Bart Ehrman, chair of religious studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and author of the bestselling book Quoting Jesus, with his new study, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions of the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them) — on Wednesday evening, March 25, at Quail Ridge Books; on Tuesday evening, March 31, at Durham’s Regulator Bookshop;  and on Friday afternoon, April 3, at McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village.

Shelby Stephenson, award-winning poet and editor of Pembroke Magazine, on Thursday evening, March 26, at McIntyre’s. 

John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed, author of Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, on Saturday afternoon, March 28, at the Barnes & Noble, New Hope Commons, Durham. 

Lynne Hinton, bestselling author of Friendship Cake, with her new book, The Order of Things, on Monday evening, March 30, at Quail Ridge Books.

Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, with her new guidebook, Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir,  on Monday evening, March 30, at the Regulator Bookshop.

And Raleigh author Therese Fowler, author of Souvenir, with her new book Reunion, on Tuesday evening, March 31, at Quail Ridge Books, and again on Thursday afternoon, April 2, at the Country Bookshop. 

For updated information on literary events in North Carolina, bookmark the MetroBooks calendar.

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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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