Monday, December 7, 2009
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Saturday, November 28, 2009
Saturday, November 21, 2009
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Monday, November 2, 2009
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Monday, October 26, 2009
Friday, October 16, 2009
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Sunday, September 6, 2009
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Sunday, August 30, 2009
Saturday, August 29, 2009
Monday, August 24, 2009
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
English 449/549 E-Hours: T&F 9-12
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Office: Armstrong 201L
www.dianajosephsyllabi.blogspot.com Phone: 389-5144
Writing the Humorous Essay
1. Humor question: What is humor?
(An answer to this question often entails answers to questions regarding the object and the response. This is the central question of any humor theory.)
2. Object Feature Questions:
a. Are there any features frequently found in what is found funny?
b. Are there any features necessary for something to have in order to be found funny?
c. Are there any features that by themselves or considered jointly are sufficient for something to be found funny? (Answering this question affirmatively would amount to discovering the holy grail of humor theory.
—from "Humor" at The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”
This course involves the study of techniques used by humorists such as satire, irony, sarcasm, exaggeration and understatement. Through readings and analysis, we will explore the uses of humor, its purposes and effects, its pay-offs and pitfalls. Discussions will include questions concerning ethos, tone, voice, language, audience, pacing, set-ups, summary/scene, developing anecdotes, and answering the “so what.” We will write imitations, respond to prompts, collect material that will turn into full-length essays, workshop pieces in large and small groups, and offer specific and detailed feedback on peers’ writing. By the end of the semester, graduate students will have written 5 full-length essays; undergraduate will have written 3 full-length essays.
Texts and Materials
Money for copying, approximately $30
Participation is not merely showing up for class—that’s called attendance. I define participation as your active engagement with the class demonstrated through thoughtful contributions to class discussion, evidence of preparedness, and helpful feedback during workshops. Because this class relies so heavily on participation, you can’t sit silently and expect to do well (that’s called intellectual freeloading.) But I also don’t want one voice to dominate class discussions. Expect to listen as much as you talk. I don’t want to give reading quizzes but I will if it seems like people aren’t reading. Finally, each of you will offer an assessment of your peers’ workshop responses; I will take this into consideration when determining participation grades.
For each piece we read, I’ll give you a prompt. Prompts must be typed and double-spaced and keep in a folder that you’ll turn in for a grade. I’ll assess your prompt journal according to the strength of the work; evidence of your effort; and originality. You will have at least 3 opportunities to workshop one of these prompts.
I don’t grade creative work; I do grade your ability to explain what you’ve come to understand about craft. On Finals Day, undergraduates will turn in 3 full-length essays; graduate students will turn in 5 full-length essays. All students will turn in a reflective narrative, a formal essay that discusses and describes in depth and detail the use of craft in their creative work.
*Each absence over 2 will lower your final grade by 10%. I do not distinguish between excused and unexcused absence.
*Participation is 25% of your final grade; if you’re not here, you can’t participate. If you fail to turn in workshop material on the day it’s due, you lose your workshop spot—and participation credit. If you don’t come to class on the day of your workshop, it won’t be rescheduled—andyou lose participation credit. Frequent tardiness will affect your participation grade.
*All coursework must be completed to pass this class.
*Writing done for this class is considered public text.
*Assignments are tentative and subject to change.
*Academic dishonesty will not be tolerated; it may result in failure of the class.
*I’m available for help outside class during my office hours or by appointment.
“The Humorology of Power”
Monday, August 24
Flight of the Conchord
Wednesday, August 26
“Conversations My Parents Must Have Had While Planning to Raise a Child”
“Comments Written by Actual Students Extracted From Workshopped Manuscripts at a Major University”
“Things I Have Written in Cover Letters”
“Conversations I Imagine My Ten-Year-Old and Seven-Year-Old Have About Me When They See Each Other in the Hallway at School”
Internet Age Writing Syllabus and Course Overview
Monday, August 31 “Mick Jagger Wants Me” by Susan Jane Gilman
“Shame on Me” by Steve Almond
Wednesday, September 2 “Chicken in the Henhouse” by David Sedaris
“Rooster at the Hitchin’ Post” by David Sedaris
Monday, September 7 NO CLASS/LABOR DAY
Wednesday, September 9 Workshop
Monday, September 14 Workshop
Wednesday, September 16 TBA
Monday, September 21 Workshop
Wednesday, September 22 Workshop
Monday, September 28 Workshop
Wednesday, September 30 Workshop
Monday, October 5 Workshop
Wednesday, October 7 “No Wonder They Call Me a Bitch” by Ann Hodgman
“Billy Sim” by Chuck Klosterman
Monday, October 12 Meaghan Daum
“Shooting Dad” by Sarah Vowell
Wednesday, October 14 “The Fourth State of Matter” by JoAnn Beard
“The Braindead Megaphone” by George Saunders
Monday, October 19 Workshop
Wednesday, October 21 Workshop
Monday, October 26 Workshop
Wednesday, October 28 Workshop
Monday, November 2 Workshop
Wednesday, November 4 Workshop
Monday, November 9 Workshop
Wednesday, November 11 excerpt from A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
by Dave Eggers
Monday, November 16 “Ticket to the Fair” by David Foster Wallace
Wednesday, November 18 Prompt Journal Due
“Six to Eight Black Men” by David Sedaris
Monday, November 23 small group workshop
Wednesday, November 25 small group workshop
Monday, November 30 small group workshop
Wednesday, December 2 small group workshop
FINALS DAY Essays/Reflective Narrative Due
Friday, August 14, 2009
English 640 E-Hours: T&F 9-12
Email: email@example.com Office: Armstrong 201L
www.dianajosephsyllabi.blogspot.com Phone: 389-5144
Form and Technique in Prose
This course examines the technical underpinnings of fiction and nonfiction genres. Through lectures, readings, class discussions, imitation exercises, and workshops, we will study the relationship between form and content. Specifically, we’ll pay attention to issues of craft including point of view, characterization, setting/place, tone, style, imagery, structure, plot and theme.
Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principals of Screenwriting. Robert McKee
The Help. Kathryn Stockett
Mrs. Bridge. Evan S. Connell
The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction. Ed. Michael Martone
The River Teeth Reader, Volume 10, Numbers 1 & 2, Winter 2008. Ed. Joe Mackall
Candy Freak. Steve Almond
Spook. Mary Roach
1. McKee Worksheet=25% Due on Assigned Day
See Assignment Sheet.
2. Craft Analysis Papers=25% Due on Assigned Day
See Assignment Sheet.
Participation in not merely showing up for class—that’s called attendance. I define participation as your active engagement with the class demonstrated through thoughtful contributions to class discussion and evidence of preparedness.
4. Form project=25% Due on Finals Day
What are all the forms a piece of writing can take? There are books and magazines, of course, and broadsides and chapbooks, but there are also take-out menus and checkbook ledgers, classified ads and vanity license plates. Your assignment is to experiment with form, by creating a text whose form reinforces its content in artistic and interesting ways. My only limitation is the text itself must be something I can hold in my hand. Make a copy for each member of our class.
Do the work. Missing more than one class results in dropping a full letter grade. Show up on time. If you’re not here, you can’t participate. All coursework must be completed to pass this class. Late work will not be accepted. Assignments are tentative and subject to change.
Tuesday, September 1
1. Read The Help. Your first time through this book should be about experiencing the story.
2. Read chapters 1-7 of McKee. Begin preparing worksheet.
Tuesday, September 8
1. Reread The Help. Your second time through should be about beginning to recognize McKee’s principals of story-telling.
2. Read chapters 8-19 of McKee. Take detailed notes on your reading; continue compiling your notes into a worksheet.
Tuesday, September 15 The Help Worksheets for Chapters 1-13
Tuesday, September 22 The Help Worksheets for Chapters 14-25
Tuesday, September 29 The Help Worksheets for Chapters 26-34
Tuesday, October 6 Mrs. Bridge Craft Analysis
Tuesday, October 13 Scribner Craft Analysis
“White Angel” and “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story”
Tuesday, October 20 Scribner Craft Analysis
Tuesday, October 27 Scribner Craft Analysis
“Fiesta, 1980” and “First, Body”
Tuesday, November 3 River Teeth
“When You Weren’t There: How Reporters Recreate Scenes for Narrative” and “The Writer’s Choice”
Tuesday, November 10 River Teeth Craft Analysis
` “The Exorcist in Love” and “The Fourth State of Matter”
Tuesday, November 17 River Teeth Craft Analysis
“The Speed of Memory” and “The American Man at Age Ten”
Tuesday, November 24 Candy Freak Craft Analysis
Tuesday, December 1 Spook Craft Analysis
Finals Day Forms Project Due
While reading McKee, take detailed notes. Organize those notes into a worksheet that lists McKee’s terms and definitions: plot points, story values, conflicts, scenes and exposition, character vs. characterization, protagonists and antagonists, setting, the inciting incident, complications, subplots, turning points, the nature of choice, climax, crisis, resolution, ETC. In short, this worksheet will allow you to map/outline McKee’s principals of story-telling so the more detailed you are, the better. There’s more than one way to organize this material; figure out what works best for you. Here’s an excerpt from mine:
Object of Desire
Chances to attain his/her Object of Desire
Will/capacity to pursue Object of Desire to the end of the line
Risk character is willing to take to achieve Object of Desire
What is revealed by choices he/she makes?
Characterization/sum of all observation qualities
Level of conflict
Rules of the World
How do characters make a living?
What are the politics/who has power?
What are the rituals?
What are the values?
What is the genres/combination of genres?
What are the biographies of the characters?
What is the backstory?
What is the cast design?
III. SCENE ANALYSIS
Who drives the scene, motivates it, makes it happen?
What does he/she want?
What forces of antagonism block him/her?
What do the forces of antagonism want?
Note Opening Value/identify value at stake.
Break scene into beats.
Note Closing Value.
Locate Turning Points.
And so on…
You’ll be assigned a point of view character. Follow that character through her chapters. Fill out your worksheet for EACH chapter; include page numbers that locate where you found the information. Bring these worksheets to class—we’ll be using them to guide our discussion of Stockett’s novel.
A Reminder: This assignment is NOT about workshopping, reviewing or book-clubbing the novel. It’s not about whether you like the book or don’t like the book. It is about studying, recognizing, and articulating how McKee’s principals of story-telling are at work.
CRAFT ANALYSIS PAPERS
Note: This assignment uses the same language as the instructions for writing the Comprehensive Exam Essays. The only difference is the comps require that you compare and contrast two works while in this class you’ll focus on one at a time.
For FICTION You’ll write 2 craft analysis papers for fiction.
Listed below are eight of the primary elements of fiction. Choose one of these elements, then write an essay in which you first define the element and then discuss and analyze the element as
it functions in the assigned work of fiction.
Structure (you will probably want to include but distinguish between structure and such
related elements as pacing, plot, and storyline)
Tone (an aspect of voice, related to but distinguished from mood and/or atmosphere)
For NONFICTION You’ll write 2 craft analysis papers for nonfiction
Listed below are seven of the primary elements of creative nonfiction. Choose one of these elements, then write an essay in which your first define the element and then discuss and analyze the element as it functions in the assigned work of nonfiction.
Voice and/or the role of the “I” in the narrative
Characterization and/or the writer’s responsibility to subjects
Research, Reporting, and/or “Immersion” in the subject
You’ll be assigned the readings for your craft analysis, due on the day we discuss the work. Bring TWO copies to class. Be prepared to present your analysis to the class.
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Monday, July 13, 2009
Saturday, July 11, 2009
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Samuel Ligon is the author of Drift and Swerve, a collection of stories (2009), and Safe in Heaven Dead, a novel (2003). His stories have appeared in The Quarterly, Alaska Quarterly Review, StoryQuarterly, New England Review, Noise: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth, Post Road, Keyhole, Sleepingfish, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. He teaches at Eastern Washington University's Inland Northwest Center for Writers, in Spokane, Washington, and is the editor of Willow Springs.
Diana Joseph: You've published a novel, Safe in Heaven Dead, and a collection of short stories, Drift and Swerve. How do you decide when material should be one form over the other? What do you see as the challenges of each?
Sam Ligon: Stories, of course, are more compressed than novels, and in Drift and Swerve, there’s a kind of urgency to the stories, though I don’t think that’s in any way necessary to the form. There are plenty of stories that are much more patient than the kind I included in Drift and Swerve. I think of the work of Alice Munroe or William Trevor. I’m almost done with my second novel now, and one thing I’m aware of is allowing for a kind of sideways movement in the narrative that I would tend not to allow in a story, creating greater breadth or context. So maybe I’m more patient with the novel, wanting to explore the stories and characters with those sideways movements, though there still has to be narrative drive. But in Drift and Swerve, all of the stories had something pushing hard behind them, and because the form is short, I was much more conscious of absence or negative space in the stories—what isn’t said or revealed that becomes apparent by its absence as a kind of shadow. Most of them also have a narrow scope of time—ten hours in a character’s life, three hours, twenty hours, five minutes. One of the difficulties of a novel for me is that the story has to open and then close somehow. Stories seem to move to a kind of opening, and can often end with that opening. But novels seem to need to close too. With a story, I’m concerned with eliminating everything that doesn’t belong to the particular movement I’m examining. And while that’s true of a novel too, while concision always matters, I’m not as obsessive in the longer form about stripping the piece down to its crucial elements. I allow myself more room to move sideways.
Joseph: What do you see as the important themes in Drift and Swerve? How did you decide these stories work together as a collection?
Ligon: The main themes probably have to do with alienation and connection, people trying and failing and sometimes succeeding in meeting each other somehow, recognizing each other, connecting a little bit or failing to connect. And as I said above, all the stories have a kind of urgency behind them, the characters moving away or toward something or each other. And, as is true of all fiction, I think, and life, all the characters are damaged, some more than others. So one question for me becomes what they’re going to do with their damage, how they’re going to use it and be limited by it, and how much of it they’ll even be aware of, which probably won’t be much. I think of a bunch of blind people bumping around trying to find each other, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not, usually misreading each other. Most of the stories are also interested in relationships between men and women. I have a thirteen year old daughter and a ten year old son, both of whom now expect my pat response when they ask what a movie or a book is about: “It’s about people,” I tell them. Unless, of course it’s about car crashes or explosions, or chases, in which case I say that. But all stories that aren’t about explosions or crashes seem to be examining what it means to be human, and the stories in Drift and Swerve tend to attempt that through highlighting the cracks between people, the movements toward fracture and connection.
Joseph: Four of stories in the collection--"Providence"; "Dirty Boots"; "Austin"; and "Orlando"--focus on Nikki, a teenage girl who's tough and wild but also vulnerable. Where did she come from?
Ligon: I was working on a story for an anthology called Noise: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth, the assignment for which was to use a Sonic Youth song title as the title for a story. I chose “Dirty Boots,” from Goo, and tried to write a story that somehow reflected something of Sonic Youth’s sound or feeling. The first story I wrote became “Providence,” but it was too long for the collection, so I wrote another one with the same character, Nikki, because she had come alive for me on the page and I was interested to see where she might take me. The second one became “Orlando,” and it was again too long. I wrote a third one, which was the right length for the anthology, and at that point, I thought I might write a whole collection of linked “Nikki” stories. But when I wrote the next one, “Austin,” the movement seemed complete. Those four stories were the last stories I wrote, and when I finished them I started to see how they fit with other stories I’d been working on, suggesting the shape for the collection. I don’t really know where Nikki came from—some feeling from Sonic Youth—but once I finished Drift and Swerve, I went back to a novel I’d put away, cut almost all of it, and reanimated it with Nikki, though she’s twelve years older in the novel than in the stories. I’m almost done with that book now. Writing the Nikki stories allowed me to rethink and rewrite it.
Joseph: Is there a story in Drift and Swerve that was particularly difficult to write--either because of its form or its content?
Ligon: One of the Nikki stories, “Austin,” seemed particularly difficult for me, I think because it has so much and varied violence in it. I was worried about overwriting it. I did overwrite it. And then I just kept adding to it, couldn’t see the shape it needed to be. I finally cut it nearly in half and found what felt like the right ending. The violence was a problem because I didn’t want it to be cheap or titillating. The story was also hard because it ended that four-story movement of Nikki pieces, so, in a way, I felt like it had to be bigger. But then I ended up really closing that movement with “Orlando,” which is earlier in time, and that discovery helped me cut and shape “Austin.”
Joseph: Which story is your favorite and why?
Ligon: The Nikki stories are my favorites, and if I had to pick one it would probably be the first one I wrote and the first one in the book, “Providence.” It was a fun story to write, with all the sex and drugs and music, and I was just discovering Nikki, maybe sort of fascinated by her toughness, her resilience, and what she would do to get what she wanted. And I like the way the prose works in that story—in all the Nikki stories—the long lines and paragraphs threatening to implode.
Joseph: Describe your revision process.
Ligon: I never finish a story when I first think it’s finished. It usually takes me about six months after I first thought I’d finished it to be able to see it again, and then to reanimate it and really revise it. So much of the revision I do before that point is on the line level, working the surface, and if I keep doing that, the story is pretty much dead because I’m not seeing it or feeling it beyond the lines. Sometimes I can’t finish a story for five years. I’ll think it’s done, or think I can’t do anything else with it. Usually, if something in it continues to hold my interest, if I keep rewriting it, there’s probably something there worth finishing. But sometimes I just can’t find it for a couple years. Like most writers I know, I spend a lot of time on revision.
Joseph: What literary tradition do you see your work fitting into?
Ligon: Realism seems to be a bad word today, but that’s probably closest to what I write—whatever the term even means. I guess what it means to me is that the stories usually follow the same physical laws as the “actual” world. Like most writers, I’m interested in trying to reveal something essential in characters, trying to use dramatic action as a means to reveal them in depth and complexity.
Joseph: In addition to writing, you teach in the MFA program at Eastern Washington University. How do you balance teaching and writing?
Ligon: I love teaching, and while it certainly takes time and energy, it compliments my writing life well. I feel lucky to have a job that’s concerned entirely with reading and writing, and that gives me time off every year to do nothing but write. Sometimes I get too busy during a term to write, but I can usually balance my writing and teaching life by working early in the morning. And my students are great, so often surprising me with their work and their observations.
Joseph: You also edit the literary magazine Willow Springs. What advice you do have for writers who are just beginning to send out their work?
Ligon: The most important thing to remember about the acquisition process is that it’s entirely subjective. What I don’t like, someone else might. We often pass on stories that are strong but just don’t quite do it for us, and we’ll later see them published in another journal, which is great. It’s always good to get a feeling for a magazine’s aesthetic before sending them work, but I also try to keep the aesthetic at Willow Springs as open as I can. I want to publish a variety of voices and approaches to story. So just because we haven’t published a story like story x before, doesn’t mean we won’t. I also think it’s important to try to keep the business side of writing separate from the artistic side. The rejections pile up and you get sick of them and that never seems to improve. The rejections are just a fact of the writing life. Willow Springs publishes about one story per thousand submissions. The odds are better for nonfiction and worse for poetry. Tin House and McSweeney’s are even longer shots, I’m sure. I think you just have to keep plugging away, submitting to a variety of journals, and writing and writing and writing.
Joseph: What are you working on next?
Ligon: I’m just about done with the novel I mentioned above. Nikki’s one of the protagonists, and then I think I’ll be done with her. That will be a weird feeling, since I’ve been living with her for three years. Then I’ll have to start all over again. That’s the other thing I like about working on a novel—knowing what you’re going to be working on every morning for all those mornings, living in that world with the characters for years.
Monday, June 29, 2009
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Monday, June 22, 2009
2. STORY: SUBSTANCE, STRUCTURE, STYLE AND THE PRINCIPLES OF SCREENWRITING. Robert McKee. HarperEntertainment. ISBN-10: 0060391685
3. THE RIVER TEETH READER, Volume 10, Numbers 1 & 2, Winter 2008. Editor Joe Mackall.
This is a literary magazine.
Here's the website for it: http://www.ashland.edu/riverteeth/index2.htm
Here's the email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
4. MRS. BRIDGE. Evan S. Connell. Counterpoint. ISBN-10: 1593760590
5. CANDY FREAK. Steve Almond. Harvest Books. ISBN-10: 0156032937
6. THE SCRIBNER ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY SHORT FICTION. Editor Michael Martone. Touchstone 1st Edition. ISBN-10: 0684857960
Make sure you get the FIRST edition.
7. SPOOK. Mary Roach. W.W. Norton. ISBN-10: 0393329127
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
I've used Turning Life Into Fiction in a number of writing classes, and I've long admired Nola, his memoir about his sister. I just finished reading Hemley's latest, a memoir titled Do-Over: In Which a Forty-Eight-Year-Old Father of Three Returns to Kindergarten, Summer Camp, The Prom and Other Embarrassments.
From the publisher:
Robin Hemley's childhood made a wedgie of his memory, leaving him sore and embarrassed for over forty years. He was the most pitiful kindergartner, the least spirited summer camper, and dateless for prom. In fact, there's nary an event from his youth that couldn't use improvement. If only he could do them all over a few decades later, with an adult's wisdom, perspective, and giant-like height...
In the spirit of cult film classics like Billy Madison and Wet Hot American Summer, in DO-OVER! Hemley reëncounters papier maché, revisits his childhood home, and finally attends the prom—bringing readers the thrill of recapturing a misspent youth and discovering what's most important: simple pleasures, second chances, and the forgotten joys of recess.
Diana Joseph: While reading Do-Over, I kept thinking about a line from Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being:
"We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come."
What do you think of Kundera's claim? In a way, the do-overs allowed you to live more than one life. You describe in the book how re-experiencing certain moments have changed your perceptions about the past. Has it also influenced your attitude toward the future?
Hemley: That IS a great quote, and I agree with it in a narrow sense, but in another way, I think I disagree. While we might live only one life, we return to our experiences repeatedly, and relive moments, even changing or distorting certain outcomes over time. I think we live multiple lives within our proscribed lifetime. We live in our imaginations and memory as much as we live in the day-to-day world. The present often seems immutable to me, but the past and future are fluid.
So, in essence, we can compare our lives to one another. There’s the life I thought I was living at seven when, let’s say, I flubbed my line in the Littlest Angel. When I flubbed the line I thought it was a great tragedy. Years later, I saw the episode as funny and told it to friends and family as an anecdote. Then, when I was writing Do-Over, I remembered that this was the only play my father saw me in because he died of a heart attack several months later. Now the memory changed once again and I saw my mistake in the play, if not as a tragedy completely, then at least heavily tinged with sadness.
What we want changes with the different lives we lead, and we CAN compare our past desires with our fresh ones, and perhaps temper those desires, if not perfect them.
Our great enemy is not desire or “want” but forgetfulness. We forget what’s already been given us . . . to quote another writer as wonderful as Kundera, Walter Benjamin wrote: “The fairy in whose presence we are granted a wish is there for each of us. But few of us know how to remember the wish we have made; and so, few of us recognize its fulfillment later in our lives.” I used that as one of the epigraphs of my book.
Joseph: In the introduction you state exactly what your do-overs were and were not about:
"If I only knew then what I know now. How many times have I thought that in my life? The more I considered this project, the more I wondered if knowing what I know now would make any difference when I revisited my young life. That's not to say my do-overs involved moral or ethical tests I hadn't passed the first time. For me, a do-over wasn't a correcting of karmic imbalance, though there was some of that. It wasn't always a matter of my choices, my wrong-doings, either. It was a matter of road blocks. What were the roadblocks in my life that I had never completely negotiated?"
How did you decide on that definition?
Hemley: I didn’t want this to be a “My Name is Earl” book, a book about redressing karmic imbalance, and so I wanted to make that clear from the beginning. To me, “Road blocks” seemed a better way of phrasing it. The problems of my childhood were not always my doing: my crazy kindergarten teacher, for instance, or the death of my father, or my problems with bullies when I was a kid. The “moral or ethical test” route risks too much self-seriousness in my view. I was always trying to strike a balance between the humorous (the sheer absurdity of a 48-year-old man going back to kindergarten, etc) and the meaningful. The corrections I wanted to make were ones of perspective not necessarily judgment.
Joseph: You've called the book "an immersion memoir." Can you explain what you mean?
Hemley: “Immersion Memoir” is a cousin of “Immersion Journalism.” My book is not straight journalism, nor is it straight memoir in that there is a lot of it that takes place in the present as a kind of chronicle of the way kids experience childhood in contemporary America.
Practitioners of Immersion Journalism, such as Susan Orlean and Barbara Ehrenreich are fundamentally different from writers like Danny Wallace (who wrote YES MAN) and A.J. Jacobs, who wrote THE YEAR OF LIVING BIBLICALLY. Some people might call them “stunt memoirist/journalists” but I prefer the word “immersion.” Stunt emphasizes the gimmick and trivializes the effort, but I see the immersion memoir as something that has more weight than a stunt, that is ultimately more reflective. The literary conceit (of saying yes to everything for a year, living by ALL of the Bible’s many precepts, or going back to the prom with the woman you had a crush on at age sixteen, in my case) are all ways of framing the story, but they’re not the story, not in its entirety at any rate.
Of course, all memoirs are “immersions” of some sort, but I’m using the word in the same sense as it’s used in the phrase “immersion journalism.” You take on a role out in the world as a way of understanding the self.
Joseph: How easy or difficult was it to immerse yourself in these experiences? How aware were you of the artifice? Did you find yourself embracing and/or resisting a particular do-over more than the others?
Hemley: There was always a moment of abject terror before each do over. It was always initially embarrassing to step into a cafeteria or on the playground with a bunch of five-year-olds, or play flag football with eighth graders. But then I settled into the experience each time, and enjoyed it. We all relaxed after the first hour or so.
Of course, I was aware of the artifice at times, but at other times I completely lost myself in the experience. Sometimes I had to pull back from the experience because I always had to keep in mind that I’m an adult. Sounds odd, I know, but there’s something I learned about called “regressive pull,” the idea that you tend to conform to the maturity level of those around you. And I sometimes had to snap out of it as a result of regressive pull. In one instance, I was going back to boarding school for my prom do over, and the school took a field trip to Chattanooga. Some of the kids invited me along (they were between 16 and eighteen) as they walked through Chattanooga. One of them lit up a cigarette and it soon became clear they were probably going to drink or get high or something. I pulled back and went off on my own, and that cost me my budding friendship with this group, who afterwards regarded me as warily as they’d regard any adult. But I’m glad I left them then and there.
As for embracing do over’s, I embraced them all with the exception of the ACT test. I also had a lot of psychic hurdles to jump with eighth grade because I hated eighth grade, but once I was into the experience, I enjoyed it as much as any other.
Joseph: The subtitle of Do-Over--In Which a Forty-Eight Year-Old Father of Three Returns to Kindergarten, Summer Camp, the Prom, and Other Embarrassments--is interesting. It emphasizes aspects of your identity--your age, for example. Is this a book you could only have written at middle age?
Hemley: I think I would have written a very different book ten years ago. Or 20 years ago. I’ve settled in my life enough to take on a project like this. Ten years ago, I was going through a divorce. Twenty years ago, I didn’t have enough perspective on my life. For me, it’s all about perspective, and while I wouldn’t consider myself wise . . . well, that’s not true. I think I’m a mixture of wisdom and foolishness that makes a project like this right for me at this time in my life.
Joseph: Why did you decide to focus on the roadblocks of childhood?
Hemley: Childhood roadblocks present the most opportunity for irony and humor, I think. In childhood, we’re trying to negotiate a world we haven’t yet experienced and each roadblock seems HUGE when in adulthood we know that they’re often not as big as we think.
Joseph: Your relationship with your daughters provides another subtext to the book: "I had kids of my own to raise," you write, "and I wanted them to be healthier specimens than I was. I had to set a good example." As you "do-over" some of your perceived failures or regrets, you encourage all three girls to pursue their own big dreams. When Olivia talks about how she might become a psychologist instead of an opera singer, for example, you're quick to tell her she doesn't have to live her life according to what's practical.
Hemley: Well yeah, life is full of risks and playing it safe is something I don’t believe in. My daughters have plenty of time to play it safe. I think it’s important for their sense of confidence and their enjoyment of the world for them to dream big. I’m delighted that my daughter Olivia has made the choice to pursue opera instead of psychology. As I told her, she can become a psychologist AFTER pursuing her opera dreams, but if she never gives her opera dreams full play then she’s almost guaranteed a sense of deep regret that she didn’t at least try. She’s going to be attending an excellent music conservatory in the Fall in opera. I’m proud of her, of course. Of course, she might have disappointment later on. That’s unavoidable. We all have disappointments, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of censoring our dreams before we’ve given them a chance.
Joseph: What are you working on now?
Hemley: I’m working on a novel. It’s funny . . . I think. At least, I’M enjoying it.
Monday, June 8, 2009
--from "It Was, Like, All Dark and Stormy: Teenage readers are gravitating toward even grimmer fiction; suicide notes and death matches"
To read the article, click here.
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
We are accepting unsolicited chapbook manuscripts from May 1st through August 31st (postmarked) and are looking to accept six to eight manuscripts this summer that will be printed during the 09-10 academic year.
All genres considered.
Specific submission guidelines and information can be found on the website (www.RockSawPress.com). Or contact us at
RockSaw Press Managing Editor
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Interns: Matthew Weerts Office Hours: M 12:30-2:30
Allison Crowley e-hours: TTH 12:30-2:30
Office Phone: 389-5144
On-line Syllabus: dianajosephsyllabi.blogspot.com
In this class, you’ll practice strategies for generating and developing ideas, locating and analyzing information, analyzing audience, drafting, writing sentences and paragraphs, evaluating drafts, revising, and editing in essays of varying lengths. You’ll also become experienced in computer-assisted writing and research.
The goal of this course is to develop writers who use the English language effectively and who read and write critically. By the end of the class, you will be able to:
a.) demonstrate and practice strategies for idea generation, audience analysis, organization of texts, drafting, evaluation of drafts, revision, and editing;
b.) write papers of varying lengths that demonstrate effective explanation, analysis, and argumentation;
c.) become experienced in computer-assisted writing and research;
d.) locate and evaluate material, using PALS, the Internet, and other sources;
e.) analyze and synthesize source material, making appropriate use of paraphrase, summary, quotation, and citation conventions;
f.) employ syntax and usage appropriate to academic writing and the professional world.
REQUIRED TEXT AND MATERIALS:
Making Sense: A Real-World Rhetorical Reader, ed. Cheryl Glenn, 2nd edition
Approximately $20 for copying expenses
You’ll write 3 formal essays:
Personal Narrative = 25% of final grade
Exemplification Essay = 25%
Summary/Response Essay = 25%
Each essay will be generated by a prompt/exercise assigned in class; at least one of these will go through a large group workshop. TWO COPIES of each essay is due in hard copy (not emailed) at the beginning of class on the assigned date. You’ll receive a criteria sheet for each essay that details its specific requirements.
2. Quizzes on assigned readings = 15%
Expect daily quizzes on the assigned readings and occasional quizzes on workshop material. I’ll drop your three lowest scores.
3. Participation = 10%
I define participation as your active engagement with the class, demonstrated through evidence of preparedness, and thoughtful contributions to discussions and workshops. Each of you will offer an assessment of your peers’ workshop responses; I will take this into consideration when determining participation grades.
F 58 and below
You’ll receive an assigned day for a large group workshop. As a workshop writer, you need to bring enough copies of your draft for everyone in the class on the day BEFORE your workshop. We’ll read your essay with an interest in what your piece is about, and in how it’s told. As a workshop participant, you must read the drafts up for workshop. You’re expected to write feedback, positive and critical, on the manuscript(s), and you should have suggestions in mind for class discussion. Expect to be called on.
Workshops are a give-and-take experience. If someone fails to provide evidence of reading and analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of your draft, then you’re not obligated to give that individual much feedback, either. But if someone gives a reading that shows time, effort, and thought – whether or not you agree with the comments – then you owe that person equal consideration. Workshops are about giving what you get. Finally, workshops are not about egos – fragile, super, or otherwise. Workshops are not about being defensive, nor are they about hurling insults. Workshops are about the text, locating its strengths and weaknesses, and finding ways to make it stronger. Be critical, but be constructive.
Each absence over 1 will lower your final grade by 5%. I do not distinguish between excused and unexcused absence.
If you fail to turn in workshop material on the day it’s due, you lose your workshop spot—and participation credit. If you don’t come to class on the day of your workshop, it won’t be rescheduled—and you lose participation credit. Frequent tardiness will affect your participation grade.
All coursework must be completed to pass this class.
Writing done for this class is considered public text.
Assignments are tentative and subject to change.
Academic dishonesty will not be tolerated; it may result in failure of the class.
I’m available for help outside class during my office hours or by appointment.
CENTER FOR ACADEMIC SUCCESS:
I encourage you to take advantage of the services offered by MSU’s Center for Academic Success located in Memorial Library. Services include tutoring sessions in nearly all subject areas, including composition.
Center for Academic Success: Memorial Library 125
CAS Phone: 507-389-1791 CAS Website: http://www.mnsu.edu/cas/
NOTE FOR STUDENTS WITH DISABILITES:
Any student who qualifies for accommodation for any type of disability should see me.
Monday, May 18 First Day of Class
Tuesday, May 19 Orlean, 68
Wednesday, May 20 Sedaris, 157
Thursday, May 21 Soto, 190
Friday, May 22 Drayer, 169
Monday, May 25 Memorial Day
Tuesday, May 26 Personal Narrative Workshop
Wednesday, May 27 Personal Narrative Workshop
Thursday, May 28 Personal Narrative Workshop
Friday, May 29 PERSONAL NARRATIVE DUE
Monday, June 1 Stacey, 237
Tuesday, June 2 TBA
Wednesday, June 3 TBA
Thursday, June 4 TBA
Friday, June 5 "Inside the Teen Brain"
Monday, June 8 Exemplification Workshop (Steph, Olusula)
Tuesday, June 9 Exemplification Workshop (Ally; Matt)
Wednesday, June 10 Exemplication Workshop (Wan Yi; Kamal)
Thursday, June 11 Exemplification paper DUE
Friday, June 12 TBA
Monday, June 13 TBA
Tuesday, June 15 Summary/ Response Workshop (Joy)
Wednesday, June 16 Summary/Response Workshop (Emily)
Thursday, June 17 Summary/Response Workshop (Yolanda)
Friday, June 18 SUMMARY/RESPONSE DUE
Sunday, May 17, 2009
Monday, May 11, 2009
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Midge Raymond is on the editorial board of the literary journal Green Hills Literary Lantern. She taught communication writing at Boston University for six years, as well as creative writing at Boston's Grub Street Writers. While living in Southern California, she co-founded and taught at Metropolitan Writing Works as well as San Diego Writers, Ink, where she served as vice president of the board of directors. She now lives and writes in Seattle, where she teaches at Richard Hugo House.
Diana Joseph: Your short stories have been published in top notch literary magazines, including North American Review, Ontario Review, Indiana Review, Witness, and American Literary Review. Forgetting English, your first book, is a collection of short stories. Why this genre? What is it about short stories?
Midge Raymond: My writing background had previously been in nonfiction — news stories, features, profiles — so writing short stories allowed me to make my way into fiction. I fell in love with the short form, in large part because it was doable for me while working full-time and freelancing on the side: I could actually finish a story before a year went by. I’ve continued writing short pieces because there’s something so appealing about being with characters for just a short time, then letting them go.
Joseph: Describe your writing process.
Raymond: A story usually begins with a moment that I find interesting for one reason or another, and then the characters and the story develop from there. “Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean,” for example, was born after a trip I took to Hawaii for a friend’s wedding — while there, I noticed a lot of vacationing families and was surprised to see how many of them had nannies in tow. It got me thinking of what it might be like to be a young nanny — to have the responsibility of looking after someone else’s kids, to spend so much time with a family while not fully being a part of it. The character that grew out of this is a young actress, working in child care to support what she really wants to do, and while she doesn’t love her day job, she can’t afford to be a slacker, which she realizes when something happens to one of the kids.
Another example is “Rest of World,” which I began writing one night after seeing a message light blinking in my hotel room, only to discover it was for someone else. It made me think of lost connections, miscommunications, how much we rely on such things when they’re not always very reliable.
In terms of my routine as a writer, I don’t stick to a regular schedule the way many writers do, and I think it’s because when I started writing, I had to squeeze it in wherever I could. I’m fortunate to have a lot more time to write now, but it varies every day; I might write in the morning, the evening, at home, at the library, in a café. What I do when I’m in the middle of a project, though, is commit to a certain number of pages or words I want to write daily and make sure I meet that goal. If I don’t meet it one day, I’ll make up for it the next. You do need a certain discipline if you’re going to get anything done.
Joseph: The stories take place in exotic locations. What kind of research did you have to do? Can you talk about the importance of setting?
Raymond: I’ve been to many of the places in Forgetting English, which helps a lot — there’s often no better way to describe a place than to have been there yourself, to capture not only the visual images but to get the feel of the place and those who inhabit it. That said, I’ve also written about places I’ve never visited, and while I can look at photographs or videos and read about it, I usually like to hear stories about it as well — that’s what gives me a true sense of a place. In “First Sunday,” for example, my sister Rebecca helped a great deal with those details because she’d spent a lot of time in the Kingdom of Tonga, whereas I’d never been. After seeing her photos and hearing some of her stories, I knew I wanted to set a story there, and I wrote it with her details in mind, imagining the rest. Then I gave it to her to read. She pointed out things I’d imagined wrong, which was great because even in fiction I like authenticity. If anyone from Tonga ever reads the story, I’d want him or her to feel that I’ve gotten it right.
I think setting is important because not only can it define a character, but it can turn a character’s world upside down. That’s one of the notions I explore in Forgetting English, the idea that it is sometimes only when you leave your “natural habitat” — that is, the place where you’re most comfortable — that you discover things about yourself that may have been easier to ignore. You’ve shed that protective layer of home, in a sense.
Joseph: What do you see as the important themes in your work? Did you write stories around certain themes? Or was discovering your themes part of the process?
Raymond: I usually don’t write around specific themes on purpose, but I’ve found that certain themes do emerge, and discovering them is definitely part of the process for me. I’m interested in the imprint of place on who we are, clearly, as this is the overarching theme of the stories in Forgetting English. Much of my work focuses on relationships: between women, siblings, lovers, or among families — which is interesting to me, but it’s also something most readers can relate to: how we communicate with one another, or how we don’t. I’m also extremely interested in why people do what they do, what motivates them. “The Road to Hana” came about after a colleague at the alumni office where I used to work received a ring in the mail from an alum who had stolen it from her roommate. It had happened years earlier, but the alum was hoping we could find the roommate and return the ring to her. I was fascinated by the whole thing — what caused her to steal the ring, why she’d suddenly sent it back, the stress of having carried that secret around for so many years — and decided to explore that in a story.
Joseph: What's your revision process like?
Raymond: Revision probably comprises 80 percent of my actual writing! My first drafts are so ridiculously sloppy that my husband has strict instructions to destroy them all if I get flattened by a bus. But this is where I explore the characters, figure out who they are and where they’ll go, so it’s necessary and surprisingly fun. Still, I like the revision stage the best — it always feels so good to have something on the page to work with, instead of still facing that dreaded blank page — and usually by the time I’m revising, I know whether a story will work or not.
Joseph: How did you decide on an order for the stories?
Raymond: I hadn’t thought nearly enough about it, as it turned out, and my editors at Eastern Washington University Press suggested re-ordering the stories in a different way — putting a little distance between the stories that have foreign languages in them, and making sure we didn’t have two stories in a row about couples, or two in a row about single career women. While I tend to focus on each story as an individual work, there’s an art to creating a collection as well. And I think it turned out well — a lot of readers comment that despite the common theme, the stories are all feel very different, which I think is a good thing.
Joseph: How did you settle on the title?
Raymond: The title story is about a woman who is beginning a new life in a new country — at least, she’s trying to. She needs to learn the language, just enough to get by, and her Chinese tutor tells her, “Forget English,” because if she’s going to learn Chinese, she can’t think in English anymore — she has to start over completely.
And the title seemed to be a good fit for the book as a whole. Each story touches on this theme: of starting over, of forgetting where you came from, of trying to disappear even as you realize it’s not entirely possible.
Joseph: Is there a story in Forgetting English that’s your favorite?
Raymond: The stories that come most easily and can be written most smoothly are always my favorites! For example, “First Sunday,” despite my never having been to the South Pacific, was fairly easy to write; I had the idea for this high-powered executive type being exiled from her job, and when I decided to set it in Tonga, the whole story just came together. It was also really fun to research it through my sister, though I probably drove her a little crazy, calling her up every few days asking her how to spell something in Tongan. “The Road to Hana” is another favorite of mine because I liked the original story so much, the one about the stolen ring. I learned later that the roommate had been contacted and didn’t remember anything about it, after all that emotional suffering her roommate had gone through. I think there might be yet another story there.
What I’ve found really interesting so far is readers’ responses to the book, their own favorite stories. They are all different. Though there are a few stories that many people are drawn to, they’re not always the ones I expect — and each story in the book has been someone’s favorite at least once, which is really nice.
Joseph: Is there a story in the book that was particularly difficult to write?
Raymond: “Beyond the Kopjes” was one of the trickiest, in part because it kept getting longer and longer — I think it secretly wanted to be a novel. And maybe one day it will be. But I had to contain that one, and it took months of rewriting before I felt it stood on its own.
On the other hand, “Rest of World” was also a challenge, for the opposite reason, since it was limited by the structure I’d created for it. Often with stories I find that there’s so much to say, and yet I’ve written myself into a structure that can’t sustain it. This is why I revise and revise and revise.
Joseph: You're also a teacher. How do you balance teaching with writing?
Raymond: I really enjoy the balancing act. What I love about teaching is being reminded of all that I need to be doing in my own work. I’ll be telling students to remember their characters’ motivations, or to take a step back and ask themselves what they’re trying to say — and doing this is a constant reminder for me to do the same. When writing time is tight, I might try to rush through a project, or call a story finished when it’s not — and then I’ll go to class, talk about the very same issues, and remember that I need to practice what I preach.
Joseph: What are you working on now?
Raymond: I’m working on a novel now. I’m researching and writing and trying to figure out where it’s going. I’m enjoying the characters and the process, so it’s going pretty well so far. But, of course, I haven’t given up on stories and I do have a couple that are waiting for my attention. I think that no matter what, I’ll always be writing stories.
Thursday, April 30, 2009
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Friday, April 24, 2009
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
It's worth your time to check out this interview with agents from the latest Poets and Writers.
Here's a sample:
Are there any specific things that can make you fall in love with a piece of writing?
STEIN: I would say that being able to make me think, especially in dialogue, "Oh, shit. This person has got me. This person has just seen into what we all feel every day but don't say. This person has looked into our souls, especially the worst sides of us, and sort of ripped them open and put them on the page." Psychology, to me, is one of the most exciting things to see work well in fiction—when it comes alive on the page and is totally devastating.
STEINBERG: When you read something and think, "I can't believe they just said what I've thought in my deepest thoughts but never articulated," that is always an eye-opener for me. And it's also about reading something that doesn't seem familiar. Writers should realize that agents have a ton of material to read, and when things seem familiar, it's an easy reason to pass. If it's something that's new, it really makes a huge difference. And I'm not talking about something being so wildly creative that it's ridiculous—not a talking plant falling in love with a turtle or something like that. I'm talking about, in a real sense, something that is genuinely new and also deeply felt. That's what we're all looking for. But at the same time, I do get things and think, "How is this like something else that has sold well?" It's a difficult balance. You have to have one foot in literature and one foot in what's going on in the marketplace.
RUTMAN: Writers probably shouldn't trouble themselves too much over that consideration. If they're aiming to hit some spot that's been working—trying to write toward the books that have made an impression—that just seems like a pretty pointless chase. You know, "I hear that circus animals are wildly appealing and I've had some thoughts about circus animals...." That doesn't seem like a very good way to go about it.
STEINBERG: A writer was just asking me about that and I said it's the agent's job to spin a book for the marketplace—to talk about it being a little like this book and a little like that book or whatever. Writers should put those kinds of thoughts out of their heads and just write.
RUTMAN: I don't know who to blame for trends. If a run of books comes out that are all set in a particular country—which happens all the time—to whom do we attribute that? To writers who are looking at things and saying, "Hmmm, I notice that fourteen years ago India was interesting to people. I think that's where I'm going to set my book"? You can't blame writers for asking what subjects are interesting these days, even when we're talking about fiction, and I wish I had a useful answer for them, but I just don't think it works that way.
STEINBERG: I would basically go with your passion. The subject matter can be very wide ranging, but if you go with your passion, even if it doesn't work, at least it's heartfelt.
STEIN: On some level, what else are you going to do? Are you going to write a novel because it's "commercially viable"? I mean, I guess people do that. But we're not going to represent them.
You are all deep inside this world, but so many writers aren't. If you were a beginning writer who lived out in Wisconsin or somewhere and didn't know anybody and you were looking for an agent, how would you do it?
STEINBERG: I would not worry about looking for an agent. I would work on my writing for a long time. And then when I was finally ready, I would ask everyone I know what they thought I should do.
MASSIE: I agree with that. I would concentrate on getting published in well-regarded literary magazines and, chances are, agents will come to you.
RUTMAN: I wouldn't relish the prospect of looking for an agent if I had not come through a program, where a professor can often steer you in some helpful direction. I guess you'd start at the bookstore.
MASSIE: You pick up your favorite books and look at the acknowledgments and see who represented them and write those people a letter.
STEIN: I'm with Peter. I wouldn't worry so much about finding an agent. The thing is, there aren't that many great writers. Right? And there seem to be a lot of people trying to write novels and find agents. If you're looking for an agent, it means you want to sell your book. But if there are only a hundred people making money as writers—and I think that number sounds about right—and you're trying to sell your book to make money, then that doesn't really make sense. It's like playing the lottery. If I thought I'd written something brilliant, I would hope that, like Peter said, I would be continuing to work on my writing.
RUTMAN: But don't you think most people who are working on their writing feel kind of persuaded that they are brilliant and have something really unique and wonderful to say?
STEIN: I also think they feel this pressure to get published. With all the MFA programs, and with all the writing conferences and programs that they pay money for, there's this encouragement to get published.
RUTMAN: Sure. It's the stated goal.
STEIN: Right. That's the goal. But for 99 percent of people writing fiction, that shouldn't necessarily be the goal. Maybe writing should be the thing they work on for many years and then maybe they should think about getting published.
Sunday, April 12, 2009
Her publisher describes it this way:
"Of course I want a home," writes Mary Elizabeth Williams, "I'm American." Gimme Shelter is the first book to reveal how this primal desire, "encoded into our cultural DNA," drove our nation to extremes, from the heights of an unprecedented housing boom to the depths of an unparalleled crash.
As a writer and parent in New York City, Williams is careful to ground her real-estate dreams in the reality of her middle-class bank account. Yet as a person who knows no other way to fall in love than at first sight, her relationship with the nation's most daunting housing market is a passionate one. Williams's house-hunting fantasy quickly morphs into a test of endurance, as her search for a place to live and a mortgage she can afford stretches into a three-year odyssey that takes her to the farthest reaches of the boroughs and the limits of her own patience.
"Welcome to the tracks," she declares at the outset of yet another weekend tour of blindingly bad, wildly overpriced properties. "Let's go to the wrong side of them, shall we?" As her own quest unfolds, Williams simultaneously reports on the housing markets nationwide. Friends and family members grapple with real estate agents and lenders, neighborhood and quality-of-life issues, all the while voicing common concerns, as expressed by this Maryland working parent of three: "The market was so hot, there were no houses. We looked for years at places the owners wouldn't even clean, let alone fix up."How frustrating is the process? Williams likens it to hearing "the opening bars of a song you think is 'Super Freak.' And then it turns out to be 'U Can't Touch This.'" Told in an engaging blend of factfinding and memoir, Gimme Shelter charts the course of the real estate bubble as it floated ever upward, not with faceless numbers and documents but with the details of countless personal stories -- about the undeniable urge to put down roots and the lengths to which we'll go to find our way home.
Williams is the cultural critic for Public Radio International's morning news show, The Takeaway, and a regular contributor to Salon.com. She has written for many publications including The New York Times, The New York Observer, and Parents. She has appeared on Court TV and has lectured on journalism and community at New York University and Columbia University. She lives in New York City.
Visit her website.
Diana Joseph: Unlike a lot of writers, you don't make your living teaching. You've been a restaurant critic, a film critic, and a writer for Salon.com, The New York Times, TV Guide, The Nation and others. You've supported yourself and your family by writing professionally for a long time. What's your background?
Mary Elizabeth Williams: I became a writer by failing out of everything else. I didn't go to journalism school (my degree is in film) and I was on the corporate track the first few years of my career. And I was a terrible office worker!
When I got laid off from a studio, I chucked it all and moved to San Francisco and decided, rather whimsically, to become a writer. I interned at a bunch of places, I wrote for no money for neighborhood papers and zines, and I temped everywhere. I used to have the idea that eventually I'd wind up somewhere with my own desk and a phone and a real job title. Instead, I got to know pretty much everybody in the Bay Area, making contacts and picking up freelance assignments and continuing to work in my pajamas. Eventually a lot of those people migrated to New York and I did too. Now I can't imagine any other career path that would have fit me.
Joseph: What advice do you have for someone who'd like a writing career like yours?
Williams: Be reliable. Seriously.
Very few of us are geniuses, and having been an editor, I can tell you that geniuses can be a real pain to work with.
Editors want people who meet their deadlines, who turn in clean, proofread and fact-checked copy. Because you would be AMAZED at how many writers expend far more energy in begging you for work than they will put into actually producing it.
Be nice. Not in a butt kissy, doormatty way, but just in a knowing how to act in a socially acceptable way way. Be real and honest and genuine in your curiosity and your enthusiasm. The people you interview and the sources you rely on need to feel comfortable with you and trust you. The editorial assistant who's going through the slush pile needs to know you regard him or her as a human being.
Most of us don't go into the world with a lot of great connections and contacts. But if you're willing to put yourself out there, build your clips, and keep at it, you will cultivate them. And years from now, the people who were starting out with you will be running the show, and they'll remember you.
One of the first people I met in California, when he was starting a zine and getting people to contribute for free, was Dave Eggers. So you never know.
And write. Write a lot. Write every day. Write your bad first drafts and your underdeveloped ideas and try them out. The only way you will ever, ever get to the good stuff is by having something to work with. Very little in life springs forth flawlessly from the imagination. Bill Buford has a great phrase about "the pedagogy of repetition" and I remember that every day, when I'm faced with a blank screen and my terror of it.
Joseph: Your book Gimme Shelter is a memoir about your quest to buy a house in New York City. How did you decide this was a story you wanted to tell?
Williams: I knew it almost immediately. I came back from the first open house I attended and wrote about the experience, on my laptop, just as an exercise. I was dying to talk about what I saw out there. Eventually I turned my early house hunting into a story for the New York Observer. And I just kept going with it. I'm relentless that way.
I think the story of home and need for one is one of the great stories of the human experience. And we live in such an interesting time -- more peripatetic than ever but also so romantically attached to the notion of home and ownership. I had tinkered with other book ideas before but I knew this was something I was passionate enough about to go the distance.
Joseph: What made you choose to tell this story in present tense?
Williams: Thank you so much for asking! That was a very conscious choice and something I felt very strongly about from the beginning. I wanted the book to feel immediate and suspenseful. There's a certain horror-like quality to the experience of house hunting, especially in New York, especially during the bubble, and I wanted the reader right there with me in it. I wanted to bring people with me in as active a way as possible. The comfort of distance and misty water colored memoires wasn't an option.
Joseph: While Gimme Shelter is a personal story, it's also a book that has to educate the reader along the way, explaining the complicated and sometimes confusing process of purchasing a house. How did you balance anecdote with background information?
It helped that I'm not a business or economics person. I couldn't assume any complicated knowledge on the part of the reader because I didn't have any complicated knowledge myself. Any distilling down that I did came from my own hard-won experience. I had my own internal Denzel Washington on my shoulder the whole time, saying, "Explain it to me like I'm a four year old." Fortunately I already kind of am.
Joseph: In her short story "The Lesson," Toni Cade Bambara writes, "Where we are is who we are." The setting of Gimme Shelter--New York City--is as important as any of the people. In a way, New York becomes a character, one central to the story's themes of home and finding a place to belong and identity. Can you talk about the importance of place in your book?
Williams: Place is huge. My friend Cynthia, who survived Katrina, says in my book, "It's not even part of it, it's all of it." I think we like to fancy ourselves citizens of the world, but where we come from -- and where we settle ourselves -- are a huge statement.
If you look at "Not Quite What I Was Planning," the book of six word memoirs, you'll see how very many people choose to tell their life stories in terms of location and religion (Me too. Mine was "Catholic girl. Jersey. It's all true.") Think of how you define yourself, or how you describe others--the stoic midwesterner, the laid-back Californian.
I tried to present a variety of lifestyles and locations in the book, to show the home experience in St. Louis or Vermont or Miami. I wanted to make it clear why those places are attractive, and why they weren't an option for me. You can't put a fish in a tree, you know? And there shouldn't be anything wrong with being a fish.
I also believe very very strongly that cities, not just New York, have to be sustainable for normal, middle class people. It's not just my own attachment at stake, it's a particular social ecosystem that's threatened when school teachers and nurses and office workers are squeezed out. I wanted to make the case for our continued presence here.
Joseph: Describe the process of writing this book. Did you write it in real time--as you were living through the experiences? Or did you work from memory?
Williams: I wrote a lot as I was living it. I wrote the whole time, taking notes and trying to shape them into the book proposal. Then when I was working on the book itself, I interviewed my friends and family, and had them send me some of the emails we'd exchanged during the book's timeframe. I still had to pull a bunch from memory, and I still have people whose recollections are different, but I tried very hard to get it right.
If you're a nonfiction writer, take notes, all the time. Couldn't hurt.
Joseph: Describe your revision process.
Williams: Well it's endless. I tried to do the real writing of the MS in a big straight initial burst, not twiddling too much. Then when I had a draft, I did a week of nothing but revising it from start to finish. THEN I worked on the parts that needed the most help. And then I started collaborating with my editor, which took about two months. Because this was my first book, I quite deliberately overwrote it, and put in a lot of material I knew would eventually go. But coming from a journalistic and editorial background, I'm reasonably ruthless at cutting my own prose. It's not about saving a clever line or good scene, you have to be willing to constantly ask, what's best for the whole?
And yes, I look at it now and think of everything I wish I could fix.
Joseph: Who are some of the writers you most admire?
Williams: I knew I was in good hands with my editor when she said, "I love American stories." So do I. I have a lot of favorite writers, but I'm really drawn to that particular American sensibility. And you find it in authors as disparate as Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Edith Wharton, James Baldwin, and Richard Yates. I love how they write about class and aspiration and work in ways that are so almost painfully straightforward.
And when you look Twain's essays and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood or Barbara Erinreich's Nickel and Dimed, you see this particular form of nonfiction that's very novelistic. We take it for granted now, but it's very American and incredibly innovative.
The British author Fay Weldon was also one of my big early author crushes. She was the first woman I read who just scorched the earth. There's nothing cute or chick lit about Fay Weldon, she's funny in the most brutal way possible. I wish we had more of that.
Joseph: What are you working on next?
And fortunately I've got that convenient amnesia about how difficult writing a book actually is, so that'll help move me forward.
Of course, with the economy being what it is, I may reconsider everything and get into air conditioning repair.