Monday, February 28, 2011

{Guest Blog by Leila Emery} Finding Inspiration to Write After An MFA Program Is Over

Thank you to Leila Emery for today’s guest blog post. I’m sure her post will be reassuring for current MFA students and graduates alike.  

Originally from Massachusetts, Leila Emery holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Smith College, and a M.A. in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University. The former managing editor of the Potomac Review, Leila currently works as a freelance editor and an adjunct English instructor. Her poetry has appeared in 95Notes, Advocate, Survivor's Review, Abbey and poetryfish, and is forthcoming in 24/7: A Caregiving Anthology.

{Guest Blog by Leila Emery} Finding Inspiration to Write After An MFA Program Is Over

Roughly a year after finishing my graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins, I found myself at lunch with a fellow poet discussing our writing lives (cue air quotes). The truth was, I did not, at that point, have a writing life. Admitting as much to my friend was humbling, to say the least. She is a very disciplined person – one who gets up at 6am to write for two hours. Faithfully. Every day. To her credit, my friend reacted very non-judgmentally to my admission, but she did pose one important question: “Why?”

Now, however, about three and a half years later, I think I’ve gained some perspective on why my year-long dry spell occurred.  It really comes down to this: a lack of inspiration. As much as I would love to have the self-discipline that so many of my writer friends naturally possess -- to sit down and write, no matter what -- I’m just not wired that way. Sure, I can write “on cue”, but it doesn’t necessarily feel natural or genuine. I can recall a few instances back in grad school when I’d have a poem due for a workshop, but the inspiration to write simply wasn’t there. Consequently, in an effort to show up with something, I ended up producing several pieces that I was not proud of. In trying to justify it to myself at the time, I would blame that darn muse for failing to show up when I needed her. In fact, the muse did not visit me at all during the year after my graduation from Hopkins. It wasn’t for a lack of trying; I would sit down to write several times a week, but produced nothing. I kept wondering why, when I love writing so much, when it has always been such an integral part of my identity, was it just not happening? So I decided to handle my writer’s block by giving myself a break – a long one. I partook in other activities I enjoy: watching films, taking dance classes, spending time with loved ones, and reading mountains of books. And yes, it took a while -- a year to be exact -- but I was finally able to recapture the inspiration I was badly missing.

My experience is not unique, nor is it something I’m still ashamed of. There is no doubt that MFA programs can be incredibly rewarding, but they can also be incredibly draining. We write more than perhaps we’ve ever written in our lives -- mostly “on cue” -- and it can feel, at times, like running a marathon. Many of us find ourselves simply trying to catch our breath after finishing a writing program. Compound that with jobs teaching writing or freelance editing, and it’s no wonder that the inspiration to work on our own craft isn’t always there when we’d like it to be. For those of you who find yourselves in a similar predicament, I would like to share a few of the techniques I use to summon up inspiration.

1). Read Like a Writer

I know – it sounds horribly clichéd. But I have found that close reading (by which, I mean reading beyond just the pre enjoyment of it) can indeed help spark my own creativity. Each time I read a book, no matter what the genre, I make a dog ear on a page if I come across something I find particularly striking – usually an arresting image or a stunning turn of phrase to which I have a visceral reaction. On days when I’m feeling less than inspired, I often go back to the dog-eared pages to relive that initial reaction and see what it evokes for me on a personal level. If I’m lucky, doing so might jar a long-forgotten memory or image, which I can then begin to flesh out in writing. Ultimately, though, this technique comes down to the essential element for any writer: reading. After all, as writers, we are in love with words, and it is often in the admiration of and identification with the words of others that we are blessed enough to find our own stories emerging.

2). Try Writing From A Different Point Of View

As a female poet, it is natural for me write from a woman’s perspective. The “I” voice in my poetry is either meant to represent me myself, or at least, another woman. As such, writing from a man’s perspective was not something I had ever tried. A few months ago, however, I read and fell in love with Emma Donoghue’s Room -- a novel written as a first-person narrative, but from the perspective of a five year-old boy. Donoghue’s ability to capture the mindset and vocabulary of a young child -- and a male one at that -- is astounding. After finishing Room, I kept asking myself if I, too, were capable of writing from a male point of view? That same night, I wrote my first poem using only a male perspective as inspiration. The experience was illuminating. Not only was it incredibly exciting to write from an unfamiliar point of view, but doing so also reminded me of the importance of writing outside my comfort zone and not being afraid to take risks. I have found that writing from a different point of view from time to time allows me to envision my subjects in completely new ways, and helps me to piece together fresh narratives that I never would have contemplated otherwise.

3). Revisit Old Work

During the process of putting together our graduate theses at Hopkins, my classmates and I got into the habit of constant revision. In fact, one of the requirements of the thesis was an additional narrative explaining our personal revision process, as well as the reasoning behind particular changes and edits. The purpose of doing multiple revisions was made quite clear to us – to provide an opportunity to discern and appreciate one’s growth as a writer while moving closer to a more developed, “final” version. During my year-long dry spell, one of my mentors suggested I revise some old pieces from graduate school to see if doing so would inspire new material. I appreciated the advice, but neglected to take it. Though I was proud of the majority of the work I produced in my writing program, I was eager to move forward with new material; I didn’t then see the effect that even simply reading through my body of work might have. Over the past few years, however, I have found myself revisiting some of my older poems -- even a few dusty ones from my college days -- from time to time, especially when faced with writer’s block. I try to take the same advice I give my composition students, which is to approach a second or third draft with new eyes: to literally re-see rather than just trying to “fix” mistakes. I recently went back to an early draft of a poem I had written for a workshop but which never made its way into my thesis. The poem’s subject concerns my rivalry with a childhood adversary. In the years since first writing that piece, she and I have established a mutual respect – a surprising turn of events that forced me to look at the poem in a new way. I ended up revising the poem several times and the current version is vastly different from the original – it’s truly a new piece in its own right. On the topic of revision, Francine Prose remarks, “for any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what’s superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, and especially, cut, is essential. It’s satisfying to see that sentence shrink, snap into place, and ultimately emerge in a more polished form.” Indeed, the act of reading and revising old work forces us to view our craft with fresh perspective – something that can prove especially helpful when searching for inspiration.

We all approach writing in different ways. Some of us are able to sit down and write, faithfully, every day. Others, like myself, need that flash of inspiration, however brief, to pay us a visit before we can put pen to paper or dance our fingers across the keyboard. I am grateful to have recognized this about myself, but even more so to know that I don’t have to feel ashamed of it. The words will come when they come, and when they do, I know they will arrive from a place of clarity and truth.

For more by Leila, you might be interested her pieces Writing and Discourse In and About Iran and Iranian American Writers Today, both from the Potomac Review’s blog.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Palooka Literary Journal: Interview with the Editors

Palooka is a new online, in-print and mixed-genre literary magazine with artwork. I was happy to recently interview the editors Nicholas Maistros and Jonathan Starke. I’m sure that you’ll enjoy reading about how the journal started, what they are looking to publish and how they continue with their own writing careers.

First, though, “palooka.” Do you know what it means? I didn’t, but I looked it up: A “palooka” is the underdog in boxing. While the magazine publishes new and upcoming authors and artists, this is not an underdog magazine. 


You are two editors, Nicholas Maistros and Jonathan Starke. Can you tell me a little bit about you how met and decided to start a literary magazine?

JONATHAN STARKE: We met at the MFA program at Colorado State. At a program like that, you’re looking for one person who can push you, someone you know that just kind of ‘has it,’ and when I read his  stories that were up for workshop and he read mine, it was just kind of evident that we belonged together. We have very different writing and reading aesthetics, but we click so well. We both read and write with the same philosophy, that it’s not about an equation or having the expected elements, but it’s about the hand of that single writer, the voice, the nuances that only belong to her. We were on the phone last March, talking about literary magazines for hours (as we still do and always will) and we got going on what we might do differently if we had our own magazine. I just said, “Let’s do this! I don’t want to wait until after the MFA. Let’s do this now.” So, we did. 

We had a little difficulty finding a name, but after a bunch of back and forth discussions, I said palooka to him, and he had never heard the word, and it was the first name that we both just latched onto. It must be like naming your child, you just know it’s right. I’m a fan of boxing, and it fit the theme we were looking for, supporting the underdog. And we’ve already done some cool, new things. We did the Palooka People’s Choice Award where we selected five poems and put them on our site and had fans of Palooka vote for the winner. We tell writers exactly what we’re looking for in each submissions category. We also offer as many types of writing and artwork as we can get our hands on because we want to promote more than just regular fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Our debut issue exemplifies that and shows that we’re really  open to publishing novellas (“Tuscaloosa Irredenta”), flash fiction (“Tupperware,” “Ten Midnight Koans”), graphic stories (“A World Without Surprises”), abstract paintings (Jim Fuess), visceral artists (Andrew Abbott). We have some really cool things coming together for issue 2. We have a hilarious and beautifully drawn comic, an insane cover (as pictured in the blog), a graphic creative nonfiction piece, a story in the form of a test, and much more. But, I think that shows the kind of journal we are and that we’re living up to our own expectations, really surpassing them at times.

You write online and in the magazine that you are "determined to find those writers and artists who are flying under the radar, producing great works that are going unnoticed by other journals." How do you find those writers and what are you looking for?

JONATHAN STARKE: Those writers really find us. I think our very honest and supportive approach lends itself to the kinds of people who are struggling to be heard, struggling to be published. Our policy is that we read blind. We don’t look at cover letters until after we’ve made a decision on a piece, so it gives everyone a fair chance. We don’t solicit. We don’t publish our friends. We value finding writers who have never been published or who are struggling to get their work in journals, but it’s not like we turn away a piece because the author has been previously published. We’re really just excited to give writers a fair chance without politics or connections involved. We don’t care who you know or what degrees you’ve earned or what your name is, as long as your work moves us.

I'm particularly taken by your interdisciplinary approach. You have a number of categories: Fiction, poetry, nonfiction, graphic and artwork. After you've chosen the pieces for the upcoming journal, how do you decide to order the work, all of which is mixed together instead of divided by genre?

NICHOLAS MAISTROS: The first big decision we made, as you’ve noted, is to let the genres intermingle. Partly because we feel that literature is moving in new directions, no longer confined to traditional genre conventions and distinctions—so why present it in a traditional way? But mostly, we’re thinking of the entire book as a journey. It’s amazing to see how these pieces and genres speak to each other (the final sentences of M.V. Montgomery’s “Ten Midnight Koans,” for instance, not only concludes his segment beautifully, but sets the perfect tone for Carl Peterson’s “Tuscaloosa Irredenta”). Imagine if you got the latest release from your favorite band and they put all the ballads right up front, all the dance numbers in the middle, and the mid-tempo get-ready-for-the-day tunes at the end. I guess you could hit ‘shuffle’…but that’s chaos! There will never be a systematic approach to the ordering of our books; it’s something we have to feel. There was a bit of trial and error before we found the right order for Issue 1. Two days before we sent it to the printer, in fact, I called Jonathan, having just read the manuscript straight through for the bajillionth time, and I said, “We have to move ‘Spellbound.’ It has to follow ‘Who Will Claim Us?’” He paused for a moment and said, as though it were ludicrous to have ever thought otherwise, “You’re right!” Of course, we do present the traditional categories in the contents page for those who wish to be choosey, though with all the hybrid works we’re seeing, we may need to start getting creative with those distinctions.

Palooka offers a print ($9.00) and electronic ($2.99) versions of your journal I haven't seen that very often, but I think it is a great idea. Are both versions exactly the same? What do you find is more popular, so far?

JONATHAN STARKE: Yeah, it was something we didn’t see much of. Some journals offer issues online, along with their print journal, and I think that’s very cool. We wanted to give people the virtual feel, but retain the exact look of the journal. That’s what’s lost in online publishing—it loses the style and feel of the printed book. We maintain that with our e-Edition. The only difference between our print and e-Edition is that one is a physical book (and comes with a sweet bookmark!) and the other is electronic. The content and the layout are exactly the same. I’m happy we’re giving people more than just one option. We also offer excerpts of some of our pieces on our website, so we really have three outlets for people to see what we’re publishing.

You are both practicing writers. Can you share a little bit about how you balance your various commitments, including the journal, with your own writing?

NICHOLAS MAISTROS: It’s certainly been a challenge, but one I’ve come to enjoy. I’m not one for routine—I like having a different day every day. I’m reading submissions one minute and working on a novel the next, copy-editing in my break between teaching composition classes. I’ve come to the understanding that the life of a writer is not a normal one. It can’t be. Not when the thing you want and need to do the most—write—refuses to pay the bills. I guess my short answer is, I write because I have to; there’s nothing convenient about it. Once I came to terms with that, the balance came about naturally. A friend did ask me recently if I had any semblance of a social life. My reply was, “Can’t talk. Gotta run.” No, it isn’t normal life.

JONATHAN STARKE: “Can’t answer this. Gotta run.”

Only kidding. Palooka takes up a good deal of my week. I work full-time at a hospital, am finishing graduate school, writing a thesis, applying for teaching jobs and fellowships, and spending 20-40 hours on the magazine each week. Not to mention five days lifting weights at the gym (which is a form of meditation for me). It’s a really full schedule. As Nick said, you write because you have to. I never chose to write, it just happened. I had so many stories or first or last lines in my head, and I didn’t know what to do with them. Writing them down made the most sense. I don’t write very often, and I’m fortunate to be that kind of writer. 90% of the writing is done my head, away from a computer or pen and paper. I write entire essays and stories in my mind while taking showers. About everything I’ve ever come up with has happened in there. I think when you’re this busy, you have to find a place where it’s only you and some white noise, the peace of yourself. I guess I’m saying I get all my writing done in the shower.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Online Creative Writing Workshop: Getting Started with Creative Writing

I’d love to have you join the newest online writing workshop: Getting Started with Creative Writing.

This is a great taster course to start thinking and writing more creatively. You’ll be offered creative writing prompts, encouragement, feedback and a writing community.

The best part about an online course is that you can write where you are. You’ll learn to integrate a creative practice into your everyday life.

Reserve your virtual seat today by emailing ChloeMiller(at)gmail(dot)com.

The class starts on Monday, March 7th and runs for one week. Read the full class description and FAQs about these online classes.

Keep in touch with my Facebook Writing Coach group.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Craaaaaazy (Eddie's) Presidents' Day Sale!

and Presidents' Day
bring you today's Insane Sale!

Remember Crazy Eddie? Imagine his voice…

A crazy, insane Presidents’ Day Sale! 

Today through Monday only! 

Purchase by midnight EST and receive a 15% discount 
for yourself or as a gift!

Writing Coach Hour (up to three hours) 
Online Writing Class (one or two week classes; up to two) 
Gift Certificate (up to $500)

It’s crraaaaazy!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Interview with Erika Dreifus, Author of Quiet Americans

Welcome to Erika Dreifus, author of the short story collection, Quiet Americans.
Today is one of the last stops her on her Winter 2011 Blog Tour. I’m so happy that she could be with us.

As I wrote last week, I met Erika while we were both studying writing and literature in Prague in 2004.

Quiet Americans is a short-story collection that is largely inspired by the histories and experiences of her paternal grandparents, German Jews who escaped Nazi persecution and immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s. As you read Erika’s thoughtful answers to my questions below, you’ll learn about how she created fiction from family stories and history and her approach to writing.

I invite you to pose follow-up questions or comments below.


Q. You’ve said that your book is inspired in part by your paternal grandparents, German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s. While I’m sure that parts of the book came naturally from your immersion with family stories and historical and religious learning throughout your life, can you discuss the oral, historical and/or social research that you conducted prior to (or during) the writing of your book? Are there particular characters who reflect real, or combined, people? Were there details that you worked to exclude?

A. First, Chloé, thank you so much for having me here. I enjoy your blog and visit it often, so it's a special pleasure to be "meeting" your other readers this way.

Well, there are seven stories in Quiet Americans, and I could probably fill ample pages (not to mention bandwith) with the specifics of the research that went into each story. So perhaps I'll try to focus on one example: the book's opening story, "For Services Rendered."

The kernel of the story is indeed based on a “real” person and circumstances I'd heard about, many times, from my paternal grandmother. When she arrived in this country in the late 1930s, my grandmother found a job as a nanny for a Jewish-American family whose little girl was a patient of a refugee pediatrician, another German Jew (this doctor later became my father’s pediatrician as well). As my grandmother told the story, that pediatrician, back in Germany, had cared for the offspring of “a high-level Nazi” who had advised him to "get out of here."

My grandmother never named precisely which Nazi it was, and by the time I began writing the story, it wasn't possible to ask her anything more, since she had passed away. In any case, here is where the research came in handy.

I worked hard to make “For Services Rendered” historically plausible. For instance, I was careful to adhere to the chronology of Hermann and Emmy Göring’s marriage and parenthood, as well as to the historical timeline of restrictions placed on Jewish physicians in Nazi Germany. I consulted several history books. Also helpful were Emmy Göring’s memoir, which I read in English translation, and newspaper accounts of her postwar trial.

Q. We met while we were both attending the Prague Summer Program in 2004. You have also completed other writing residencies and workshops. Before you leave for such a program, do you have a particular project in mind? If so, what do you do to prepare your writing project (the ideas and actual drafts)?

A. Prague was wonderful, wasn't it?

Truthfully, the preparation varies and depends on the program. For example, I've attended some workshops that require participants to pre-submit the manuscript that will be their primary focus during the session. Typically, such programs offer specific guidance on manuscript length, formatting, etc. In these cases, you want to submit work that isn't so entirely new that it may still lack the coherence and organization that will assist your instructor and classmates in providing a useful critique. But at the same time, you don't want to submit anything that you've already polished to such a level that you may not truly welcome suggestions for further change (this is a lesson I've learned the hard way!).

On the other hand, I have also had opportunities to generate entirely new work, especially when I have won residencies. For instance, the collection's concluding story, "Mishpocha," began germinating in my mind during the summer of 2006, but I did not begin writing it until I traveled to Maine for a residency at the Robert M. MacNamara Foundation that fall. I brought with me a number of books and other materials to help push the project along, and with the luxury of time and a beautiful setting, I really did accomplish a lot of what I set out to do in those weeks.

Q. It is daunting to think about completing a manuscript, revising it, and submitting it, all while working full-time, maintaining two blogs, and continuing with your other commitments (family, friends and household.) How do you manage to keep up with and succeed at so many ventures? In particular, I wonder how you are able to switch your mind over to a “writing mode” when you do have time to write?

A. Thank you, Chloé, but I have to tell you that I don't necessarily feel as though I'm keeping up and succeeding all that well much of the time! One big change for me and my writing occurred about four years ago, when I shifted from teaching and freelancing to a full-time, salaried staff job at a university. This obviously altered all sorts of patterns, including my writing patterns.

In particular, I was finding it very difficult to write new fiction. But I discovered that my new life was amenable to poetry-writing. It remains rather mysterious to me, but I suspect that the ability to focus on a single image or idea in a poem, and the possibility of writing an entire (albeit very rough) draft of a poem in a single evening or weekend afternoon may have something to do with it. Not to jinx myself, but I suspect that I will have a book-length poetry manuscript completed long before I have a new book-length work of fiction. (This one took me nearly a decade, from drafting the first story to publication.)

Q. Often writers will say that they feel as though earlier pieces or drafts contain kernels of a later piece. When do you think you first started on this collection of short stories? Did they develop through other pieces?

A. Well, as I suggested a moment ago, this collection goes back about a decade. Three of the seven stories I first wrote and workshopped as an MFA student. When I began my MFA program in 2001, I’d just signed with an agent who was representing the novel I’d been working on for the previous five years. The agent was preparing to begin “shopping” the novel, so at that point, it didn't seem to make sense to continue submitting it for critique—we were waiting to hear what editors had to say.

But—and this was one very good aspect of my MFA program—I was required to submit 8-25 pages of fiction every month for four semesters. So I began writing stories—many stories—and my graduating thesis was an early iteration of a story collection. Over time, and as I continued to write new stories, the collection changed. I added stories, I removed stories, I revised stories. But the "oldest" story in the book dates from a draft written in 2001.

Q. Finally, what is the best piece of advice that you received as a writer and continue to follow today?

A. Advice can be tricky, because I believe that each writer's practice is so individual: What works for one writer may not work for another. On the other hand, there is something that I believe to be "a truth universally acknowledged": If you want to write, you must read.

Portions of the proceeds from sales of Quiet Americans will be donated to The Blue Card, which supports survivors of Nazi persecution and their families in the United States.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Writing Prompt: Native Guard, History & Poetry

Too long after its publication, I read Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey. She won the Pulitzer Prize for this poetry collection. (You might remember that I heard Natasha Trethewey read from Beyond Katrina at the National Book Festival.) The poems merge personal history (her mother’s murder by her stepfather) and the United States’ military and racial history. This wonderful NPR interview with the poet discusses her experience writing Native Guard and how the poems came together. She also reads a few poems.

As a poet, I am most interested in how Trethewey combines historic and personal fact with poetic imagining. In one example, Southern History, the reader enters into both an actual classroom and commentary on our collective past. The reader is welcomed and challenged at once.

For a writing prompt, choose a historic moment that connects to your personal story. Retell that moment in verse. You might start by writing non-stop for five to ten minutes on that historic moment and then on your own personal reaction. If you get stuck, consider the situation when it happened and then what has changed since that moment. I invite you to share your writing below.

Poetry can offer insight into history, or the present or future, without becoming a piece of propaganda. Natasha Trethewey is not the only poet who does this. What other poems/poets would you recommend reading?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Writing Prompt: No Construction Paper Hearts Here

Some people hate Valentine’s Day. There’s the pressure to have a partner. Pressure to prove and display your love with expensive chocolates, flower bouquets and dinner at an over-red-decorated, restaurant.

I don’t hate Valentine’s Day, but I do hate the hubbub. My husband and I love each other every day, whether Hallmark or Hollywood or even Google reminds us and whether we spend any of our hard earned money on bow-wrapped knick-knacks.

Today should be turned into a metaphor for leaving clichés behind. To do that, let’s write.

Choose an image that serves as a metaphor for your love. Forget about the pre-cut construction paper hearts, red devil’s food cake, mall heart-shaped chocolate truffles and Disney princess story endings. Leave those expectations behind and create something new.

Start by thinking about your beloved, one you have, had or wish to have. You might also choose an idea or action, like writing. What first made you fall in love? What smile, action, thought, email, meal, touch, laughter, glance, motion gave you that jolt that feels like a burst of love?

Then, describe it. You could start by thinking about the first senses. Use them as a prompt for your full description.

Once you’ve put this image into words, activate it. Give this image action. This movement will offer the reader insight into not only your love, but the idea of love.

And now, perhaps, you’ve written your Valentine a love note? If you’d like, share your writing below in the comments section.

If it takes you longer to write, and it often takes me longer, maybe you want to send a personalized Poem Flow Valentine. You can choose between traditional, non-traditional, intimate and even the anti-Valentine.

To love and imagery!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Next week: Interview with author Erika Dreifus

Save the date! Next Friday we'll be hosting author Erika Dreifus as she continues a Blog Tour for her new collection of short stories, Quiet Americans.

I met Erika in the summer of 2004 when we were both studying writing with the Prague Summer Program. Since then, she's been writing original work while sharing daily tips, resources and more with readers through her Practicing Writing blog and newsletter.

Erika never tires of creating and and sharing useful information with the writing community. She organized and moderated an AWP panel about online teaching that I was on just last week during the annual conference. She also presented Beyond Bagels and Lox: Jewish-American Fiction in the 21st Century and shares her handout on her website.

I hope you will help me in warmly welcoming Erika in one week when she stops her on her Blog Tour. In the meanwhile, you might want to read what she said on some of her earlier stops.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Interview with Poet Jessica Young

Jessica Young’s poetry has more math and science it in than most contemporary American poetry. Her new book, “Only as a Body,” not only has an “X,” but also a narrative arc. This is a collection to read not only as individual poems, but as a complete book.

I am very happy to have met Jessica Young at the Key West Literary Seminar in our workshop with Jane Hirshfield. Young kindly agreed to answer some questions about her poetry and her writing process. I think you’ll be particularly interested in the influence that math and science has had on her art and her decision to include truths and facts in her writing.


Congratulations on the publication of your first book, "Only as a Body", published by Bateau Press. Could you share how you chose the press?

Thank you, and thank you so much for having this conversation with me.

How I chose Bateau was a mix of coincidence and choice.  I assembled my manuscript in early Fall 2009, and looked for small presses that were currently reading.  Bateau was on the list I generated, and I recognized their name from AWP.  There, I'd seen some of their books and magazines.  Their publications were exactly what I wanted--the voices they printed were ones I enjoyed, and their actual books felt personal... clearly a work of pride and love.  The contest deadline was a few weeks away, so I submitted, and voila.

This collection of poems details the narrative and emotional arc of the end of a romantic relationship. In poetry, there is often the overlap of non-fiction and fiction. Would you feel comfortable discussing the decisions you made to include true-to-life and/or invented details?

Generally, I write from my own life experience, in my own voice.  I'm a big believer that a poem needs to feel authentic.  For me, at least, that's correlated with true stories reflected on in a true voice.  Sometimes another voice comes to me, though, and if it's in good faith and fascinating, I indulge it to see where it goes.  These poems tend to be a lot of fun.

The odd part for me about the publication of "Only as a Body," is that when I think of the poems I write and want to write, they're not these!  I'm so happy with this book, but it also feels strange to share it knowing readers will assume the story is true, and I am the narrator.  I get a little nervous, even, when I think of the more intimate poems.  It's unlike me/my poetry to open in that way.  So I think this is what happened: I wrote these poems during a six-month period of extreme stress and hurt.  At the time I felt like another person, and probably acted and wrote like another person.  That version of me wrote this book, and in that sense it's true-to-life.  But looking back on it, comparing it to what I usually write (astronomy! nature! math!), it's barely recognizable.

As for specific details in it, during the editing process I just tried to have fun.  Some of the poems are 100% true (riding my bicycle into the woods), and some of them are 100% metaphor and make-believe (stacks of dirty dishes).  Where I invented, I tried to detail plausibly.  Some details, of course, got borrowed from real life--the muesli, the attraction of a fresh start.  Some of them were pulled from the air.  As long as we populate our poems with details that a reader feels possible, they can be fact or fiction.

Most of your poems in this chapbook build upon each other and could fit together as one long poem. End lines of some poems flow seamlessly into the following poems. For example, poem "II" ends with the phrase, "But that's not" (without end punctuation) and is followed by the first, un-capitalized line in the following poem, "a secret; and the pieces I still need". This second poem is entitled, "There are the pieces he wanted kept". Can you discuss these decisions and connections between the poems?

"Only as a Body," is intended to be read cover to cover.  I was thinking about how details unravel... how we understand situations better in retrospect, as new information enters... how we cope with situations we lived but cannot change.  So I designed the book to reflect that: to have an arced plot, and to have a story that isn't linear, but represents something of the human experience.  So to encourage a cover to cover reading, the book is very much meant to flow from one poem to the next.  You found a couple of my tricks--the repeated use of the number 21, and that some poems lead right into the next one.  There's also the poem, "At first, you say you enjoy doing them," which is a longform broken into 7 pieces, and doled out throughout the book.  And then there are little patterns to pick up on, for example, phrases that are repeated again and again.

Numbers play an important role in your poems, especially in the three part poem "The 21 Before Me". You move beyond arithmetic and use mathematics as a means to develop a system of understanding. Can you discuss how this came about and the role that your science and math background plays in your poetry?

I grew up with the illustrious X... my father taught algebra for 17 years, I felt at home in my math classes, I studied a lot of Physics at MIT, took Differential Equations for fun... all of this taught me to think in a certain way, to process information as a scientist might.  So when I go through, say, a break-up... I think of the numbers.  I quantify my experience, or remember the details--how many times did wh X, how many times did I say Y, how often did I think Z?  Likewise as I brainstorm for a poem, my paper won't necessarily contain phrases or thoughts, but flow-charts and variables... and I'll admit, even equations.  Numbers, compared to the anything-can-happen world of poetry, seem quite sturdy.  And the number 21, well, that was an obsession.  It refers to a personal detail from the relationship, and became an organizational tactic for the book--how many poems, how many lines, how many pieces of silverware... In this sense, math/patterns help me write by offering a constraint.  If I give myself a blank page, where do I start?  If I give myself a blank page and a rule to play by, well, that gets the brain moving...

Finally, writers must spend time not only writing and revising, but also tending to the administrative side of publishing: submitting poems to journals and contents, applying for fellowships, etc. What advice would you offer to writers about balancing these activities?

Ah, the practical side.  These are thoughts I try to live by myself:

(1) Submit your work widely.  To get individual poems placed, generate a list of journals you like and submit to one a day.  I did this for a month and it felt like overkill, but I realized at the end I had 30 submissions out there!  Only 2 came back positively, but hey, that's 2 more publications!

(2) Understand that a rejection is in no way personal.  If 2 of my 30 submissions were accepted, then 28 weren't.  That seems... depressing? offensive? confirmation of all my self-doubt?  In reality, what gets picked is so random and subjective.

(3) When you do get the acceptance, feel really good about it.  Yes, it was random.  Yes, it was subjective.  And this time, it went in your favor.  Celebrate, tell your friends, and send copies of the magazine to the people who helped.

(4) Have a few writers to fall back on when you're feeling bleak.  Some of them should be in print (Matthea Harvey, Theodore Roethke)--to remember why you're doing this, to re-learn that we can feel connected across a page.  And then some of them should be in person (friends and family)--to remember there is a world outside of your computer screen, and that there are people out there who--whether or not your poem was accepted--love you fully.

Jessica Young currently holds a Zell Fellowship for poetry in Ann Arbor, MI.  She completed her Master's of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (poetry) at the University of Michigan, where she received two Hopwood awards and the 2010 Moveen Residency.  Her undergraduate work was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she received four Ilona Karmel prizes for her poetry and essays.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Phew! AWP 2011 in Washington, D.C.

I spent this year's AWP conference attending panel discussions, readings and book parties. I presented, caught up with old friends, met new friends and wandered wide-eyed through the book room. I met with some new writing coach clients and presenting on a panel about teaching online.

It was a full, full couple of days and it will take me a bit to recover and go through the many materials I picked up and notes I jotted down. I think I left with enough books and literary journals to keep me reading until next year’s conference. That said, as overwhelming as the conference can be, it is always a great literary charge for the new year.

One of the best parts of the conference is going through the book room. If you weren’t able to attend, you might be interested in scrolling through the exhibitor list on the website. You’ll find small to large literary presses and journals, university and private writing programs, writing organizations and more.

Next year’s conference will be in Chicago from February 29 – March 3. The deadline for panel discussion proposals is this May, so it is time to start brewing your ideas. 

Friday, February 4, 2011

What is Creative Non-Fiction?

There are still spaces available in the upcoming Online Creative Non-Fiction Revision Workshop. The class will run for two weeks (Monday, February 14 – Friday, February 25.) Click here for a full course description. 

So, what is creative non-fiction?

Although it sounds a bit affected and presumptuous, “creative nonfiction” precisely describes what the form is all about. The word “creative” refers simply to the use of literary craft in presenting nonfiction—that is, factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid manner. To put it another way, creative nonfiction writers do not make things up; they make ideas and information that already exist more interesting and, often, more accessible.

If you are writing memoir, personal essays or researched essays that rely on traditional craft tools from fiction or poetry (narrative arc, images, etc.), then it is likely that you are writing creative non-fiction. In the upcoming Revision Workshop, we’ll be looking closely at earlier drafts and considering a variety of methods to re-enter the piece for smaller and larger revisions. See you there? 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Workshop: Brainstorming, Work, and Creativity

When I lead the workshop, “Brainstorming, Work, and Creativity: Thinking Outside the Box,” I ask participants to tape into their innate creativity and use this skill to draw connections between interests and their career paths. We start by writing in response to creative writing prompts and then brainstorm real, tangible ways to connect the dots and even draw new ones. I recently led this workshop for the fifth time to a group of Smith College alums in the D.C. area.

I love leading this workshop because the participants always bring a varied personal and work history that leads to a great discussion. Everyone leaves with a list of possible steps to take towards specific, personal goals.

Are you interested in bringing a workshop to your alum, professional or social group? I’m available to lead these workshops according to your needs. They usually last 2-3 hours and I find that they work best with about ten participants. We can hold them in someone’s home or in an office or classroom.

Here is the description:
Right brained or left, it doesn’t matter - being creative is essential in the current economy. Access your inner poet and your muse with poet /entrepreneur, Chloe Miller, who will lead us in a discussion of how to connect creativity with business planning and the generation of concrete ideas. This is a hands-on, interactive, process-driven voyage of discovery. Be prepared to roll up your sleeves.  Bring writing materials.

Email me today for more information: Chloemiller(at)gmail(dot)com

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

I feel like... to be written

I'd like to take this opportunity to further consider audience and point of view. I understand that most of you are most comfortable writing in the first person. Do understand that it is best to write about your own experiences in the first person, but draw conclusions in the third person. Using phrases such as, "I feel" will hurt any authority that you develop in your voice. I know that we speak using phrases like this and we work to be as inclusive as possible. If something is your own opinion or feeling, then you can't offend anyone, right?
Instead, for your writing, please try to be more definitive. You'll find that it empowers you, encourages you to do the necessary research and brings readers on-board to your argument. If something is your own personal "feeling," why should anyone believe you? By putting the conclusions in the third person, you also have more space in your sentence to explore the reason why you came to such conclusions. 
Now, I know this sounds quite rude in everyday speech or perhaps even just reading my explanation. Let's look at two examples:
I feel like the weather is really nice and I want to go for a walk. 
The weather, with the morning sunshine and cool breeze, invites residents outside to take walks. 
Now, that's not a very controversial idea, but the simplicity should help to make my point. If something is just my "feeling," are you convinced? If I can support my conclusion, written in the third person, with outside evidence, you the reader are more likely to believe me.
Questions? Look back over what you write and notice if you use this phrase, or similar ones, regularly in your writing. It will weaken your writing. Try to substitute conclusions written definitively in the third person and see what happens.