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March 1, 2014

An Interview with Michael White

Guest Blogger:

Sarah Feldman, Straw Dog Literary Correspondent 

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Michael.WhiteMichael White is the author of six novels and a collection of short stories.  A two-time finalist for the Connecticut Book Award, he has received nominations for the Pushcart Prize and the National Magazine Award. His novel, A Brother’s Blood, was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book.  He’s written both contemporary and historically-rooted novels, including Garden of Martyrs, about a real life murder trial held in Northampton in 1805; as well as the self-described “ roman à clef” stories of Marked Men
 
Michael balances his writing career with full-time teaching as Director of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Fairfield University. He has also held jobs in fields ranging from house painting to social work. His advice to writers trying to juggle work commitments and writing? “Give your best time to your writing. Give your second-best time to your job.”
 
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Sarah: How do you go about using research to create a believable world in your novels?
 
Michael: I try to get a feel for the landscape of the time and place. What did they eat, what did they wear, how did they talk. I find a dictionary from that era; period maps of [the setting]. I get to know street names; locate pictures from the period; learn what the houses looked like. 
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I do field research – getting out, visiting people, talking to people. When I was working on Garden of Martyrs, I had an idea that I might set a scene in the first Catholic cemetery in Boston. So I drove up to Boston on a frigid January day to visit the cemetery, and when I got there, it was locked. There was a high gate all around extending for about half a city block, and a massive padlock that looked like something from a prison. I went up to the church to ask if I could be let in, and was told the priest was having his lunch. So I asked the housekeeper. She and I went back and forth, and finally I had to give her the keys to my car in exchange for the keys to the cemetery. I looked around the cemetery for awhile, taking some pictures, and I came on a little chapel. When I saw that chapel, I knew the last chapter of the novel needed to be set there.
 
Sarah: Are there uses for research even when a writer isn’t dealing with an unfamiliar time, place or milieu? What about for the writer of more autobiographical fiction, or of memoir?
 
Michael: I think they’re all important to do research for. Even memoir. There’s a line at the start of Tobias Wolff’s famous memoir, This Boy’s Life: “There’s a dog in this book that I remember as being very ugly and my mother remembers as being very beautiful.” See, memory isn’t static, and as a memoirist, you’re not just recording what happened. If you think back, and you wonder was it a 1930 Ford your father drove or a 1936, then you go back and find out what kind of car it was, see what it looked like,you might pick up discrepancies in your memory. So by going back and doing research you can get closer to the truth.
 
Sarah: Why do you think a writer might resist doing research?
 
Michael: A lot of writers think of writing as creative and research as something academics do. But you’re not just checking the facts. You’re not just finding out whether it was a 1930 Ford or a 1936 Ford. You’re getting a feel for the landscape of the story. You’re finding out about what it’s like for the characters. There’s this story about a famous director who was filming a movie set in the 1920’s. He had one shot that showed people looking out a window on a street. That’s all the audience saw – the view out the window on a tiny part of the street. But the way he set it up, the street outside was lined on both sides with period automobiles. It was very costly and very time-consuming. The audience wasn’t going to see any of this. But it was for the actors, so they could feel like they were in the world of the movie. You need to be able to get a feel for the world of your story so that you can evoke it for the reader.
 
For more information on Michael White, visit his website here.
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Michael’s talk, Fact into Fiction,” hosted by Straw Dog Writer’s Guild at the Northampton Friends Meetinghouse on March 15 from 10:30 AM-12:30 PM, will offer tips on techniques for researching fiction, using that research to ground a story, and creating fully realized characters.
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Sarah Feldman’s work has appeared in The Villager, Chelsea Now, The Antigonish Review and The Fiddlehead. Some of her poems were anthologized in “Undercurrents: New Voices in Canadian Poetry”.
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February 1, 2014

 

A Note from Missy Wick, Blog Editor

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Missy_WickFor people like me – a digital immigrant, born and raised in the land of paper, white out pencils, and Correcto type – the migration to the Internet has been both daunting and thrilling.

In truth, I do not miss all the old country ways. I spent far too many hours fiddling with the typewriter roller, trying to match the IBM Selectric type ball with the letters on the page to fix a midsentence mistake. Failure meant retyping the entire page. I was a terrible typist; I still am, but now (for better and for worse) there is spell check.

I have also found opportunity in the new world. Last year a call for a writer came through a listserv, via my email – and now I pen Anthropocene Mind, a blog about psychology and climate change, for Psychology Today. The blog pays for the expensive green teas I like, and brings me readers from all over the world.

I even got a shout out in Andrew Revkin’s Tumblr (New York Times Dot Earthblogger). After he posted my post, his readers tweeted sentences from my blog. It was fascinating to see what words they chose – what was meaningful to them.

Yet with those tweets came the realization that a bit of expatriate caution is warranted. Words can spread like a flash fire in this virtual balloon frame. You have no control. All you can do is watch them burn through Twitter, Facebook, Google +, Tumblr, – and so on. Be careful what you offer for kindling.

Like many émigrés, I know that the country I left years ago is gone. Returning is not a choice. And there is still so much to learn; the language of the Internet is not native to me. I know how to touch type, not type with touch. So I plan to go hear about Sarah and Avital’s journeys, and hope to see you there too.

 The Digital Writing Life

with Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser and Avital Norman Nathman

 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

3:00 to 5:00 p.m.

Northampton Friends Meeting

43 Center Street, Suite 202, Northampton, MA.

 

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser and Avital Norman Nathman will discuss the specific ways different types of social media have helped them open doors, plant some writing-roots, and cultivate publication options. They will also delve into ways to use these online platforms to maximize marketing efforts, and discuss the benefits and challenges of creating an online community.

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January 1, 2014

 An Interview with Naila Moreira

Guest Blogger:

Sarah Feldman, Straw Dog Literary Correspondent 

 

nhampton_nailaNaila Moreira is a writer and journalist living in western Massachusetts.  Her journalism and nature essays have been published in The Boston Globe, The Seattle Times, The Common Online, Science News, and other venues.  She works at Smith College as a writing counselor at the Jacobson Writing Center and lecturer in the English department.  She also teaches science and nature writing to high school students in Smith’s Summer Science and Engineering Program.

Guest blogger Sarah Feldman met with Naila at Wood Star Café in Northampton to talk about her writing, her experiences as a Straw Dog volunteer, and the “literary life”.

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Sarah: How did you start emceeing for Straw Dog Writer’s Guild’s Writer’s Night Out?

Naila: I met Jacqueline [Sheehan] through the Writer’s Room at Forbes Library, and learned about Straw Dog through her. I started attending Writer’s Night Out, started reading there, and one night [about a year ago] I did the announcements. Jacqueline told me that I had a “good emcee manner”…and that she was looking for volunteers.

Sarah: You teach classes at Smith College; you do part-time environmental consulting; you’re writing a children’s novel; you write freelance journalism, creative nonfiction, poetry and a blog; you facilitate the Poetry Discussion Group at Forbes Library—have I missed anything? What makes you decide, Sure why not, I’ll volunteer, rather than, I’m really busy already?

Naila: I think the best way to have a literary life is to be part of a literary community. Not just because that way you hear about opportunities to get your writing published and read by a wider audience, but because one of the ways to be close to literature is to be around people to whom literature is important, who like literature and try to incorporate it into their day-to-day lives.  Volunteering is just a way to do that more strongly and immediately, because you’re offering part of yourself, and others in turn are likely to be more open, to offer something of themselves to you.

Sarah: How do you balance having a literary life – staying in contact with those touchstones of inspiration  –with creating literature? (You mention in your interview on “The Writer’s Voice” that you get a lot of material from spending time in nature every day….)

Naila:  The short answer is I don’t. The longer, and probably truer, answer, is that I alternate. If I go hiking one day, then I won’t get much writing done, but I’ll write the next day.  I do try to get out every day, but that might be just five minutes to cross the bridge, or go down to where the beavers live, or go out and look at the stars.

I also try to write an hour every day. It’s kind of a moving target. If I make it, I’m happy; if I don’t, I’m frustrated.

I write, without fail, Wednesdays and Saturdays at The Writing Room at Forbes Library. I can’t thank [Writing Room facilitator] Susan Stinson enough for keeping that space open.

Sarah: What’s one of the oddest experiences you’ve had emceeing Writer’s Night Out?

Naila: One thing I love about the readings is that there’s such a wide variety of experiences driving people’s writing. What I find odd is inhabiting those different skins for a while. It’s almost like “Story Corps”, or “The Moth”, people speaking in this raw, powerful way about their lives, but in a place that’s one of the richest centers of writing in the country.

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 Sarah Feldman’s work has appeared in The Villager, Chelsea Now, The Antigonish Review and The Fiddlehead. Some of her poems were anthologized in “Undercurrents: New Voices in Canadian Poetry”.

 

December 1, 2013

Who Knew an Annual Meeting Could Be So Magical?

Guest Blogger: Patricia lee Lewis

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What I loved most about the Straw Dog Members party was the way each person walking through the front door of Jacqueline Sheehan’s wonderful home discovered that what seemed, from the outside, to be a tiny, fairytale farmhouse quickly became the Marvelous Expanding House of Writers.  All were greeted by dozens of smiling faces, yammering away as writers love to do in groups, and thankful to have found kindred souls.

Loud? Yes it was. Friendly? Yes, most certainly. Delicious? Amazingly. But 60 eager Straw Dog Members found a place to stand or sit, and quieted like flowers the moment the program began. We held the shortest Annual Meeting in the world, invited volunteers to work with us, and then sorceress Jane Yolen cast her enchantment over us all.

A magical evening? You can bet your favorite wand on it.

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Jennifer & Jane
Jennifer Jacobson and Jane Yolen
Jane enchanting
Jane enchanting us all
Nancy & Becky
Nancy Rose chats with Becky Jones

 

November 1, 2013

30 Poems in November!

Guest Blogger: Becky Jones

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I first learned of what was originally called “30 Poems in 30 Days” from an e-mail invitation in the early fall of 2009.  It came from then-Poet Laureate of Northampton, Lesléa Newman, who explained the project she envisioned: one poem a day for a month, with the hope to raise $3000 for the literacy project of the Center for New Americans.  That first year, she raised over $11,000.  Last year the fundraiser topped $20,000.

The challenge to write a poem a day got under my skin.  It felt do-able, an effort that would kick-start my creative juices, so I committed myself to the task. Life’s wisdom, condensed and filtered through my brain, explains what happened next for me:  “As long as you dither, all of life’s forces will dither with you.  But the moment you step forward with your decision, the ground will rise up to meet you and open up the path before you.”

So I committed myself to the project in early October, when I had weeks to let ideas percolate.  Almost immediately, the ground rose up to meet me:  I was flooded with ideas for poems.  By November, I was a ripened jewel weed ready to pop.  Do you know jewel weed, sometimes called touch-me-not?  It grows on the edges of woods in the dappled sun. Swollen translucent green seed pods hang off yellow and orange blossoms that look like miniature snap dragons.  When ripe and full, the pods burst open under the slightest touch, as the inner filaments – pulled long and straight by the pods’ growth – recoil and send their seeds out like bullets into the nearby forest debris, where they wait to take root the following spring.

On November 1st, I sprang into action, cranking out the first of 30 and more poems for the month.  I rode the crest of that wave comfortably and enthusiastically for about fifteen days.  It was as if the momentum, the build-up of unexpressed ideas, carried me halfway through the month.

I continued faithfully to write a poem a day, sometimes two – but I started to struggle.  I finished only two or three poems to my satisfaction the entire month.  Some days I didn’t get to my poetry until late at night.  But I kept the discipline, even if it meant dashing off a short, short poem at 11:57 pm; that discipline gave me pride and energy. And there’s nothing like a deadline to get the adrenalin flowing.

When it came time to do the public reading, I vacillated between two poems.  I chose to read a pantoum, a Malaysian form of poetry I’d tried my hand at.  It was not a very good poem in my opinion, but I felt it would signal that I was a serious poet.  Almost immediately after reading the pantoum, I wished I had read the very first poem that sprang jewel weed-like from my pen on November 1st. Suddenly released after the build-up of ideas, that poem represented all the potential created by the challenge.  And it was a poem I had a great time working on. I hadn’t read it because I thought it was too silly.  But now I appreciate its vitality.  Here’s the poem I wish I’d read:

 

Full of Eyedeas

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30 poems in 30 days?

Naah!! Who could do that?

But the seed of the idea is planted.

Each day of October

has seen the mound of soil on

my little potato patch grow.

I can tell that the list of

one hundred poetry ideas

has already produced an

abundance of new potatoes.

I can feel the crowding

beneath the surface,

an extra 37 topics

already clustered, waiting

to take root.

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I will dig some up way too soon,

to see if they are ready yet.

They will be small, ill-formed and stone hard.

Some I will never find again.

A few, I imagine, will ripen.

They’ll grow big and juicy

with dents, no doubt, and

bumps, imperfect potatoes but, still,

full of juicy promise.

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Harvesting will be a delight

for me, this new gardener.

I will savor the digging

the scrubbing, the baking.

Butter will melt

in the steamy flesh.

And I will think with satisfaction and surprise,

This grew in my rocky soil.

I had nothing to do with it

except to receive the seed potatoes given to me,

each with its own little eye,

and plant them deep and build the mounds.

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For now, I pick up the pen.

I see the beginning sprouts.

I will tend and wait patiently,

water and stake, if necessary,

watch for blight,

and wait impatiently for harvest day.

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If you are tempted to write 30 poems in 30 days, I heartily encourage you to put your pen and your imagination to the task.  You’ll also be helping the Center for New Americans provide vital services to our newest residents and citizens.

Terry S. Johnson, program chair this year, has generously crafted 30 poetry prompts to see us through the month.  These will be posted on November 1st.  Details for enrolling and finding the prompts are available at the Center for New Americans website, here.

becky

You never know what kind of delicious, quirky potatoes you’ll harvest, until you try.

                       — Becky Jones

 

 

Guest Blogger: Ellen Meeropol

Writing on the Fault Lines  

I believe that literature can contribute hugely to positive social change. That stories and poems and essays and theater can illuminate injustice, open minds, and inspire us all to work to transform in our world. My favorite writers—like Kamila Shamsie and Paule Marshall, Rosellen Brown and Sadie Jones—position their work on the fault lines of our world, the dangerously shifting plates of political turmoil and human connection.

One job of the writer is to balance on those fault lines in order to illuminate the complex forces in our world—race and class and gender issues, war and peace and environmental crisis. Another job is to use the writing process, that powerful amalgam of memory, history, and imagination, as a tool to help traumatized and disenfranchised communities get back in touch with their birthright as storytellers.

There’s a long, global literary tradition of writing to effect social change. From Turgenev’s short stories about serfdom to Edwige Danticat’s depiction of both victim and torturer in Haiti, from Chinua Achebe to J. M. Coetzee, from Adrienne Rich to Martín Espada, from Eduardo Galeano to Octavia Butler, many authors engage the world in a passionate and partisan manner. “That is why we write,” Isabel Allende wrote, “as an act of human solidarity and commitment to the future. We want to change the rules, even if we won’t live long enough to see the results.”

Writing political-themed work is challenging. In his 1946 essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell claimed, “My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice,” but he admitted, “What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art.” It requires balancing conviction with character emotion and with story. It necessitates walking a tightrope strung high above the abyss of didacticism, with rhetorical rocks and metaphorical quicksand below. It obliges us to wrestle with contradictions and ambivalences, to find a voice between activism and emotion, between compassion and ferocity. Not so easy.

Many writers shy away from political themes in their work, believing that it is somehow less literary, less aesthetically rigorous. For those of us who choose to engage politically through our work, questions persist: How can we avoid the stale diction of polemic, and dramatize conflicts without lecturing our readers? How can we use the writing process to empower vulnerable members of our communities? Are other writing programs and communitiesdiscussing these questions? Are there resources to help us all deepen the social engagement of our work and our writing practice, alone and with each other?

Elli.2As our world spirals into ever more violence and conflict, as people respond with increased fear and hatred, it is more critical than ever that we tell stories that bear witness to our histories, give voice to our yearnings, and build bridges across the deep chasms threatening the earth.

 –Originally published in the Stonecoast MFA Faculty Blog, April 25, 2013

September 9, 2013

An Interview with Jean Zimmer

Guest Blogger Sarah Feldman

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Straw Dog Newsletter caught up with Jean Zimmer during a family camping trip to Cape Cod. Guest blogger Sarah Feldman interviewed her about her upcoming Craft Workshop, Grammar for Dummies and/or Writers.

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Sarah: I am interested in the wide variety of forms in which you work. Does grammar function in the same way in, say, technical writing vs. fiction vs. radio?

Jean: Grammatical requirements differ hugely, depending on the genre. For example, in technical publications, ambiguities, inaccuracies, and inconsistencies are intolerable. Newspapers and online publications have their own styles, which they enforce rigidly. In fiction, reading should be a smooth ride. In broadcast journalism, the text can be more colloquial, following looser grammatical rules.

By understanding and applying basic rules of grammar, you [can invest your writing with] a sense of calm and mastery. [But] grammar is more art than science. There is latitude, and breaking the rules intentionally and with command and continuity can be refreshing for the reader.

 

Sarah: What are you working on right now?

Jean: I am wrapping up edits on a technical guide to espresso preparation; editing a novel, a couple poetry collections and a journal article; reviewing a memoir; and beginning work on a textbook. I am coaching a writer through a fiction project, and helping a client find an agent. And, of course, I am refining a syllabus for my upcoming grammar workshop.

Generally, my editing work trumps my writing. At the moment, I am chipping away at a radio commentary, a travel story, and my website (which is under development).

 

Sarah: How do you juggle all that with other obligations?

Jean: I prioritize very carefully. It’s a little like triage. [I have to determine] which deadline is tightest, who in my life is neediest.

I take both my career an editor and my “career” as a parent very seriously. I have a teenager, and a set of ten-year-old twins. Raising a family has been a great education. To love your work and be completely immersed in it, and then to need to remove yourself completely from it, allows you to return to it with a completely fresh perspective.  I’m not sure I would do that otherwise. My inclination might be to stay in the work and not get that very useful breathing space.

 

Sarah: Do you have any advice for other writers performing a similar balancing act?

Jean: Create boundaries. Ask your family and friends to be respectful of your work time. In return, respect your family-and-friends time.

Accept that there will inevitably be frustrations, such as sick kids and schedule glitches. Mine those experiences for writing material later.

Remember that taking time to rest makes you more productive.

Never underestimate how much you can get done in 15 minutes.

 

Sarah: What’s one moment that would go on your career blooper reel?

Jean:  In my early days, a software corporation hired me to write the index for a user’s manual. I was required to use a Macintosh computer to compose my document. I’d used PCs exclusively up to that point, and was unfamiliar with the Mac platform. On my first day on the job, I spent nearly an hour behind a closed door in my high-rise office, searching for the computer’s “on” switch, before I emerged, sheepishly, to ask the clerical assistant. (It was that little symbol on the keyboard.) That mystery solved, I composed a fine index.

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Sarah Feldman’s work has appeared in The Villager, Chelsea Now, The Antigonish Review and The Fiddlehead. Some of her poems were anthologized in “Undercurrents: New Voices in Canadian Poetry”.

 

August 15, 2013

Does Spelling Count?

It’s pretty instructive for a freelance writer to sit on the other side of the table – the side that receives the manuscript submissions. I’ve had a chance to do this as a reader for the Pushcart Prize, as a reader for a literary press, and as a judge of a national fiction contest. As I said: instructive.

When a liquor box full of story submissions arrived on my doorstep, I begin to understand the old saying, “When an editor picks up a submission, what she is really looking for is a reason to stop reading.”

Submit a grammar glitch on the first page, and your chances for acceptance drop. The competition is stiff.  Every piece of writing we submit needs to be the best we can offer.

And yes — I hate to be the one to say it — the reality is: spelling counts. A lot. Grammar counts. Punctuation matters.  Even typos can torpedo a great work of art.

But what if you were absent the day they taught about the semi-colon? What if you can’t diagram a two-word sentence to save yourself?

Be of good cheer. Straw Dog is offering a two-part grammar workshop in November, taught by the amazing editor, Jean Zimmer. You won’t learn everything you need in these two evenings, but it will be a start. A great start, I think.  Grammar may not be the most fun you can have as a writer, but knowing the rules really helps you on your way.

 

For details and registration for this great course, go here.

 

July 18, 2013

Recipe for Succeeding in the Publishing World

Ingredients:

Fistfuls of

  • Talent
  • Luck
  • Desire
  • Craftwork
  • Perseverance

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Mix everything together, adding an extra cup of perseverance.

Want a taste?  Sample this tidbit from Oprah Magazine’s Essential Beach Reads, featuring our very own Straw Dog founding member, Linda McCullough Moore:

LMM book

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From the Oprah editor:

“I was in a little bookstore somewhere, and the cover and title of this book intrigued me. This collection of short stories absolutely blew me away. The stories are gritty but romantic, sad but hopeful–like nothing else I’ve read. Wow.”

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Linda has been typing away for twenty-five years.     CONGRATULATIONS! 

How delicious…

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Missy_Wick

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Virtual clubhouse Editor and Founding Member, Missy Wick

June 17, 2013

Summer Reading

We are closing in on the longest day of the year.  More daylight means more opportunity to ponder the vagaries of the writing process.  Here are a couple of books to peruse for inspiration by two venerable Pioneer Valley teachers.  There is enough wisdom here to carry us through to the shortest day of the year, and then some.

 

Vernacular Eloquence by Peter Elbow

Peter Elbow revolutionized the way people think about writing with his groundbreaking book, Writing Without Teachers.  In his latest book, he says (page 5):

“Much of this book is an extended analysis of many unnoticed features of everyday speech that turns out to be sorely needed for good careful writing.  You might say that this book represents my love affair with speech…”

 

How the Light Gets In: Writing as a Spiritual Practice by Pat Schneider

Pat Schneider developed an equally ground-breaking method for helping people put pen to paper.  A description of her latest book, from her website:

“…she delves beyond the typical ‘how-to’s’ of writing to offer an extended rumination on two inner paths, and how they can run as one. Schneider’s book is distinct from the many others in the popular spirituality and creative writing genre by virtue of its approach, using one’s lived experience—including the experience of writing—as a springboard for expressing the often ineffable events that define everyday life.”

 

 Happy reading (and writing)!

 And…please consider your independent bookstore when you make your purchase.

 

Missy_Wick

 

Virtual Clubhouse Editor and Founding Member,  Missy Wick