March Reading

Monday, March 31, 2008

Short Stories

  • "The Shell Collector" by Anthony Doerr
  • "Burn Your Maps" by Robin Joy Leff
  • The Year of Fog by Michelle Richmond
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
  • The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman
Notable Nonfiction
  • Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck
  • "The Charms of Wikipedia" by Nicholson Baker, the New York Review of Books
  • Lisey's Story by Stephen King

It Gets Personal

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

I'm stuck on a story. I've been writing this story for weeks, possibly even years. The idea came to me before I went to grad school and I wrote drafts of it as writing exercises but then I put it away. The story is largely personal, dare I say, autobiographical. Frankly, I'm most comfortable with it tucked away in a drawer.

Within the last three months, I've been culling through those pieces and I've thought about polishing it up and structuring it into some kind of story. I've been adding bits to it here and there. It's been interesting. Truthfully, it's been a little like therapy. Which means I'm absolutely, positively 100% sure I shouldn't ever show it to anyone.

Hence, the stickiness.

My squeamishness makes no sense. Writers have been writing autobiographical novels for years. Pam Houston, one of my inspirations, has said that she pretty much writes everything from her life. The fiction that most often appeals to me is fiction that has a very personal core. Given all this, you'd think I'd be doing more personal writing.

I first came to writing through an online journal I kept in 1997. The content was what you would expect of just about any college junior/senior posting on Livejournal today. I deeply explored the subjects of what am I going to do with my life?, I hate my roommates, and if he says he likes me, why doesn't he call me back? Silly as these issues were, they meant a lot to me and ten years ago I had no problem opening a vein in front of Internet strangers. However, in the realm of fiction, only a couple of stories have come directly from my life. In those, I put enough "not me" details in there to make the character more of a character than a thinly-veiled version of me.

So today I find myself stuck trying to reconcile the personal side of this story with the fiction side of it. The difficulty lies in that I like it a bit raw, but I'm not sure I'm brave enough to submit it as it is. I could probably also change up the character a bit, give her more distance from myself, but doing so also seems like a cop out.

Part of me just wants to blaze ahead with this story in all of its personal glory. The other part just wants shove it in a drawer and go back to the characters I can keep at an arm's length.

Austin Literary: Austin Fiction Festival

According to the UT calendar tomorrow, March 27th, is the Austin Fiction Festival. The all-day event takes place at Jessen Auditorium and is free, but I cannot find further information. I'd like to know more and I'll try to drop by during the day. If anyone has more information about the event, please let me know.

Pimp Your Read

Friday, March 21, 2008

In keeping true to my resolution, I have avoided all bookstores and libraries and avoided any and all literary temptations.

But . . .

Hubs and I have a vacation coming up this summer and I have already been advised to stock up on books. Unfortunately, almost everything on my to-read and wish lists are in hardcover. While hardcover is my preference in books, it makes for very difficult packing. That said, I need some books to carry me through two weeks on a ship bound for Alaska. I figure I'll start collecting titles now, start buying later.

Suggestions, please?

Austin Literary: Upcoming Events

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

If you live in Austin and you want to know what literary events are going on around town, I've put together a Google calendar for just that purpose. I'll also be posting some of the major events on this here blog.

This week:
3/18 (tonight!): David Simon (creator of The Wire) lecture at UT, 6 p.m.
3/19: Richard Dawkins at BookPeople, noon
3/20: John Spayde at Intellectual Property, 5 p.m.
Amy Hempel at UT Avaya Auditorium, 7:30 p.m.

More information about any of these events can be found on the calendar. If you'd like to have an event listed, please leave a comment or email me and I'll get it posted.

Linkage: A Novel Take On An Ending

Monday, March 17, 2008

Another of my favorite writers, Richard Russo, wrote an editorial for The Washington Post about the Eliot Spitzer issue. It's a great read for writers and non-writers. In a time when the news media gets away with drawing caricatures of their subjects, Russo reminds us that it's the fiction writer's job to get beyond the surface and examine the complexities of character. It doesn't escape me that the fiction writer may be closer to portraying the truth than the CNN reporter. Just something to think about.

(via The Millions)

I Submit!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Lest you all think that I've abandoned writing in order to become a professional reader or political junkie, I'll have you know that I spent four hours today preparing six submission packages to send out this weekend. I still have more to go, but I'll need to hit the copy shop again.

Mailing off story submissions to lit mags and journals is my least favorite part of being a writer. I think I could make a killing by providing a service that prepares and mails story submissions for other writers. (Note: MY idea! If you steal it, you have to offer me a discount.) It's a little tedious and mostly frustrating, but it is a good way to feel productive without actually doing anything. Plus it's necessary because, you know, the New Yorker doesn't come knocking.

I've noticed not a lot of writers talk about their submission process. I guess that's because a lot of not-writer readers probably don't give a damn, but here's mine anyway. It can serve as a how-to for those starting out. I'd also love some pointers from some of the seasoned submitters out there.

1. Research, Research, Research. I have a confession to make. I don't read every literary journal out there. As much as I'd like to, I wouldn't have any time to write if I did. But I do have favorites and I keep up on what they're publishing by checking out a copy at the local bookstore. Armand at After the MFA has a list that I find helpful in finding new markets. Duotrope is also invaluable. But (and I can't emphasize this enough) make sure the story you want to submit fits with the content of the lit mag or journal. Other guidelines to look for: word count, themes, submission periods, editors . . .

2. Get to know your friendly Kinko's dude. I have a Kinko's dude. He's always on duty when I go and he's very useful for clearing up paper jams. Anyway, get to know him because you'll want someone to chat with while you are making your ten zillion copies of your story.

3. Write a cover letter. A lot of my fellow MFA grads told me that they didn't waste time with this step and I have no idea how how fiction editors feel about it, but I've always been a believer in the short but sweet cover letter. If you have credentials, give them. Thank the editor for actually reading your work. Keep it professional, no scented or graphic stationary, and use standard business letter formatting. As I said, I go this route but it appears to be a debatable issue.

4. Seal, stamp, and send them off. And then I wait for the rejection letters to come flooding back. But hey, at least you get something other than junk mail for a few weeks.

Tackling My To-Read List

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Now that I'm back in town and have no foreseeable plans for travel, ill heath, or vet visits, I'm going to tackle my to-read list. It's been growing uncontrollably since the holidays. It's sad. And it comes from a bad habit of shelving all my books immediately, instead of keeping a separate stack of titles to work through. So starting with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I'm tackling the to-read list and going on a book diet until I am at least eight books down.

Or maybe six.

In other adventures, diabetes kitty is doing well. We've gotten into a routine with the shots and, other than being mildly offended at having to wait longer for dinner, mister cat is handling it nicely. He's putting all his weight back on, in any case.

Oh, and I signed up for a Twitter account because, you know, I'm just not on the Internet enough. I'm here. If you have an account, please let me know so I can stalk follow you.

Linkage: 10 Ways to Annoy Your Writers' Group

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Over the last ten years I've been in a lot of workshops and writing groups and can say with certainty that these are foolproof ways to annoy your writers' group. I've had at least one of these things happen in every group I've been in (with the exception of my current, fabulous group).

While you're there, check out the rest of John Hewitt's terrific Writer's Resource Center. True to its name, it has a wealth of information that ranges from fiction and poetry to technical and business writing.


In Search of Steinbeck

Monday, March 10, 2008

I have a feeling that if I had read Travels with Charley back in high school instead of The Grapes of Wrath or even Of Mice and Men, I would have actually liked Steinbeck rather than merely appreciated him.

Now part of my Steinbeck indifference was definitely my teenage attitude. At 15 there were other things I'd much rather have been doing than reading novels about the great depression. Also, I had that "what does this have to do with me" attitude I saw so frequently while trying to teach my college freshmen literature from the Vietnam War.

But the other half of the problem was that I was exposed to those two books by a teacher who taught these novels as The Greatest Literary Masterpieces Ever. Great Literary Masterpieces have themes and symbols and, like vegetables, are consumed for (intellectual) nutrition and not for enjoyment. The image of Steinbeck that I took away from that class one of a Very Important American Author, sitting behind a grand oak desk, pondering which Important Theme to tackle next.

Reading Travels with Charley showed me that my imagination was grossly mistaken. In place of the grand desk was a pickup truck and trailer and a poodle named Charley. Steinbeck ponders road maps instead of Important Themes and I was pleased to note that while he has me licked in literary masterpieces, my directional sense is far superior to his. Also, Steinbeck is funny. Really funny. And he uses his wit and dry humor to provide a commentary on American life that is still accurate today.

I have a new appreciation for Steinbeck now. He's still an Important American Author, but one that shares philosophy with his poodle in the same way that I sometimes serenade my cats with Meatloaf songs. Okay, maybe not the same thing, but the point is, the memoir humanizes Steinbeck and makes him assessable. It's a shame I didn't read this sooner.

February Reading

Sunday, March 2, 2008


  • Nobody's Girl by Antonya Nelson
  • The Last of the Savages by Jay McInerney
Short stories (inc. collections)
  • The Knife Thrower by Steven Millhauser
  • "The Thing in the Forest," by A.S. Byatt
Notable nonfiction
  • The Professor, the Banker and the Suicide King by Michael Craig
February was a bum month for reading. Not only did I not read very much, I also didn't read anything really great. (Nobody's Girl was a reread. It's great, but it it doesn't count.) I had high hopes for the Last of the Savages because Brightness Falls is one of my favorite books and I always enjoy McInerney's novels, but I was only lukewarm about this one. I loved half the stories in The Knife Thrower, but had a hard time finishing the other half. I have high hopes of finishing Byatt's Little Black Book of Stories . . . but not this month.