“Many writers say they find writing dialogue difficult,” writes Rowena Macdonald over at Glimmer Train. “Without wishing to sound self-aggrandizing, dialogue is the one aspect of writing I find easy. To me, it isn’t that impressive to find dialogue easy. After all, we are primarily verbal creatures, we are surrounded by conversation every day, and most of us spend more time watching films and TV than we do reading books. I am always far more impressed by writers who are able to craft complicated plots, for example, since this is an aspect of writing I find difficult. To my mind, plotting is a superior skill because it isn’t something that occurs in reality: events don’t pan out in a neat, compelling sequence, loose ends are not neatly tied up and much of life is mundane, unsymbolic and random.”
She goes on to offer 10 tips for improving dialogue. Check out her recommendations here.
Instructor Tom Andes reviewed The Fry Pans Aren’t Sufficing, a story collection by Peyton Burgess, which was published last year by Lavender Ink, for The Collagist. You can read the review here, and a brief interview with Peyton below.
An Interview with Peyton Burgess
I love the voices of your characters, the way they could be sitting on barstools next to me, telling me their stories. Do you start with voice, or does that come as you write? How do you hear your characters as a story evolves?
When I’m lucky my voices are entangled with their scenarios when I sit down. For me that has always been the best circumstance that makes me write. I have some idea of where a character is going and a good idea of how they communicate. If I’m really lucky that voice sticks around as the story evolves and the characters go where they go. The times I’ve lost my grip on a voice and I’ve had a hard time dialing into it again often lead to me abandoning the story or whatever I’m working on. This has happened with a lot of stories and two novels. If I lose the voice I give up because voice is a really important part of a story being real for me. Some would say I’m not supposed to do that or that I’m doing that because I’m unwilling to write unless it feels just perfect, but the primary reason I got into writing was because of the feeling I get when I’m dialed in. I’m not under deadline for some prize—although prizes are great. I will say, though, since my collection, I’ve been making myself write more when it feels crappy. It’s a math thing—your odds of producing good work are better that way—which is lame and true. But with my collection most of those stories came out in one sitting, so I was dialed into the voice and got it out, and then I spent a lot of time trying to make the stories better. With the novel I’m working on now, I’ve been forcing myself to write even when it doesn’t feel like I’m totally getting it, and it’s going surprisingly well, production-wise anyway. I’ve changed in a lot of ways, though, so it makes sense.
Can you talk about your strategies for titles?
Titles are where I get to indulge, try to show off; I think it’s okay to be a little clever with them, have fun, try too hard to be interesting, consciously so. I like my titles to give a lead to the story but also be strange sentences or remnants of strange sentences that could be in the story if they weren’t the titles.
Many of your characters seem to have survived catastrophe, even the (relatively) minor catastrophe of being a Southerner dislocated to the North. How did you choose the stories for the collection? Did you consider their potential as a book as you wrote them individually, or did you only find them coalescing around themes as you put them together?
I think what ties them together most is that they’re all urban hick lit, which is just how I write. But story-wise, there are coalescing narratives, the first section being an overt one, the other two sections being more about common ideas; some are obvious, and many more are up to the reader to define and explore. I knew I had to do what I could during revisions to make them be a book.
I like that: “urban hick lit.” It puts its finger on something I like about your book. I wonder if you could qualify that idea or expand on it. What does that mean to you?
Man, I don’t know. That’s just what the voices and scenarios sound like to me. I don’t think I can explain it without feeling too self-conscious or calculated. I guess to me it’s about getting at a world that is a little surreal but based very much in a day-to-day reality that shows exceptions to clichés about southern style and life. The south isn’t really a Faulkner novel anymore or Gone With The Wind; it’s way more complex and diverse than that, but at the same time, we’re weighed down and still infected with that Old South world in new and old ways, so I hope my work contributes to moving away from those stereotypes while at the same time acknowledging that they linger in some very sad ways.
Were writers with a strong regional Southern voice important to you growing up? Did you find yourself embracing that kind of identity, or rejecting it?
I was into it but not for long, mostly a couple years in high school. I think As I Lay Dying was one of the first books to really show me writing as art. Anything by Flannery O’Connor. And then I found Ken Kesey and got into his work, which was nice because it showed me more areas to explore. But mostly I was into narrative journalism when I was younger. I read a lot of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was my favorite book for a while. I became a reporter right after college. I thought I could do this and try to make it something to live off; there was the reporting, and I had an editor that was nice enough to pay me $15 an hour to write longer, narrative stuff on top of my regular basic reporting. Katrina interrupted a lot of that. I wrote some stuff for my employer after Katrina, but I was having a hard time doing journalism for some reason. I don’t think I could handle everything that was going on back then. So I started playing with fiction again. That led me to grad school where I was probably the least well-read fiction writer there. I read The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and some Barthelme, and everything changed. I still pick up O’Connor and Barry Hannah but not so much for navigation as I do newer stuff. For the past eight years or so I’ve been looking everywhere for new things.
Could you talk about some of the journals these stories appeared in and your experience with Lavender Ink?
Life in the slush pile, mostly. I haven’t gotten out of it, but it’s gotten better, whether because of luck or I’ve actually become a better writer, who knows, probably both. Half of the book that was published beforehand in journals or whatever was stuff that somehow fought its way out of the slush pile because of editors that still take time to read strangers and not just their friends, editors like novelist Elizabeth McKenzie at Chicago Quarterly Review, Susan Swartwout at Big Muddy. Some of the stories were published by Ralph Adamo at Xavier Review, whom I met after I discovered his poetry and became a fan; he read some work and liked it enough that he wanted to publish it, so that was nice and easy—so I guess equal parts slush pile and nepotism (or friends taking care of friends because we all know how much the slush pile sucks). Lately, though my new stuff has all been slush pile victories at places like McSweeney’s and Tin House online, which honestly feels better. But I think you just have to take what you can get when it comes to short story publications. Right now I have nothing to submit, not one story, because I’m trying to stay focused on my novel.
As far as my book and Lavender Ink goes, Bill Lavender made it really easy once it was accepted. He wasn’t controlling at all. He’s also really smart and kind. He’s a good guy. Like every other small press though, there is zero money for publicity, so be prepared to do things that might make you uncomfortable, like harassing strangers to review your book. I guess it’s worth saying that I never submitted the book to an agent. I did query a couple and both said collections alone are a tough sell. I’m happy it ended up where it did. Bill is familiar with what sells and doesn’t sell, but he doesn’t care; he just wants it to be good.
“Hey—are you writing right now? If you aren’t, and I know you aren’t, because you’re reading this sentence, it’s okay,” writes Emily Temple over at Lithub. Writers block–those dreadful dry periods where words and thoughts are as compelling as wet cardboard–happens to everyone, even the greats.
“Many canonical authors, whose work is now beloved by millions of readers, also wrote depressive or hand-wringing journal entries and letters about their failure to get words on the page. Writer’s block, it turns out, can (and does) happen to anyone,” observes Temple.
To make us feel less alone, Temple scoured the journals and letters of Franz Kafka, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Flannery O’Connor, Gustave Flaubert, Samuel Coleridge, and Iris Murdoch to see what they had to say about not writing.
Sexton feels like a fraud and complains that “the fun’s gone.”
“You don’t know what it is to stay a whole day with your head in your hands trying to squeeze your unfortunate brain so as to find a word,” writes Flaubert in a letter to George Sands.
O’Connor bemoans a dead God, “The story level, bah. Work, work, work. Dead God, let me work, keep me working, I want so to be able to work.”
And yet, these are the same writers who we herald as greats. If you’re not writing, take solace in these diaries and letters. The agony of writers block is not yours alone. In fact, these authors are proof that dry spells end and creativity blossoms once more.
Stop navel gazing. There’s nothing new under the sun. What makes you think you have something interesting to say? Get a hobby like golf or gardening. You’ll never make any money. Everyone wants to write; the competition’s too stiff. This isn’t right. Not good enough.
Have you ever heard voices like this in your head as you sit down to write? Or worse? If so, I urge you to listen to Olympian Billy Mills describe winning his olympic medal in his own words on last week’s episode of NPN’s podcast On Being (his story starts at 41:00 minutes).
Mills is Native American. While competing as an Olympic athlete, one photographer asked him to step out of team photographs to make way for his white teammates three years in a row. Despite his own struggles to find acceptance in 1960s America as an All-American athlete who was also non-white, Mills taught himself to channel a voice and belief system that propelled him through his self-doubt and anguish into an Olympic gold medal.
“Perceptions create or destroy us,” Mills says.
Instructor Anya Groner‘s essay “Twinless in Twinsburg” examines her experience of being an identical twin through the lens of an annual Twins Day festival she attended without her sister.
Long before I knew the shape of a double helix or what DNA was, I too pondered the mechanics of individuality. Where do the boundaries of personality lie? Are dispositions coded inside us or is there something more mystical at work? I was born into those questions. Even when we haven’t seen each other for months, I’ll sit beside my twin sister at dinner and notice our shoulders slouched and elbows bent at precisely the same angles. When an expression flickers across her face, I recognize its meaning before she speaks. I’m not telepathic. These gestures — motions without thought — are imbedded in me, too, as if our muscles share memory. The effect is unsettling. What does it mean if your essence is a function of coding? If your selfhood is a coincidence of genes and timing?
Read the entire piece at Longreads.
Instructor Tom Andes — who will be leading a fiction workshop in July and a creative nonfiction workshop in the fall — has an essay titled “Waiting for Bill” up at Guernica: A Global Magazine of Arts and Politics.
“Our tombstones memorialize the things the Trump administration is killing in Louisiana. Healthcare, the environment, racial justice, prison reform, and public education—the list goes on. Suffice it to say, we have a lot of tombstones, which my friends plan to set up outside as an act of protest and, perhaps, for a bit of political theater. En route, they plan their line of attack. “I’ll ask him what his healthcare plan is going to do for me if I get diagnosed with cancer,” says one friend, who was able to obtain insurance after Louisiana accepted federal funding to expand Medicaid under Obamacare.”
Read the complete essay here.
New Orlean’s writer Anne Gisleson has a stunning new essay “The Beautiful Hunt” in the summer issue of The Oxford American. Here’s an excerpt:
My creative life had contributed to the claustrophobia I felt surrounding G’s death. I was supposed to be working on a book about mortality, reading, and family tragedy. Instead, the only thing I’d managed to write that month was a meager crystallized version of it: G’s obituary, another obituary of one of our own, the unsatisfying distillation of a short life. By that point, I’d been camped out in the unwalled city for a long while, constructing illustrative tableaus about coping with our mortal vulnerability, typing pages about how the absurdity of our condition makes us free to create ourselves however we want. But with a disease like addiction, how free can you ever be?
Here’s to Denis Johnson, July 1, 1949-May 24, 2017. He once said he kept these lines from Whitman on his desk as a kind of personal manifesto:
This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body. . . .
Our heartfelt congratulations to our former student and dear fellow writer Desiree Evans! Come fall, she’ll be pursuing a MFA at the Michener Center at the University of Texas, Austin, where she’s been awarded a full scholarship.
Those who have had the good fortune to read Desiree’s fiction these past years, know her exceptional abilities to render lyrical Southern voices and compassionate characters, including those underrepresented in literary pages.
Desiree recently wrote Allison:
“I want to thank you again so much for your letter and support. And big congrats to you, Tom, Jessica, and Anya for launching the New Orleans Writing Workshop! So important to have community-based workshops available in this city, and I truly would not have been here without you all. I would not have even considered an MFA if it wasn’t for the great experiences I had in y’alls workshops the last two years.”
We couldn’t be more pleased with Desiree’s news. She’s now among a growing number of our former students students who’ve leveraged their skills and stories into fully funded graduate creative writing programs.
ROOM 220 hosts the book launch for Cassie Pruyn’s Lena at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 11, at Saturn Bar (3067 St. Claude Avenue). Lena is the winner of the 2017 Walt McDonald First-Book Prize in Poetry.
Cassie Pruyn is a New Orleans-based poet born and raised in Portland, Maine. Her poems have appeared in AGNI Online, The Normal School, The Los Angeles Review, The Adroit Journal, Poet Lore, Salt Hill Journal, and others. She is the author of a forthcoming narrative history of New Orleans’ Bayou St. John, and of Lena (Texas Tech University Press), winner of the 2017 Walt McDonald First-Book Prize in Poetry.
NOWW student Benjamin Aleshire composes poems for strangers in the street on a manual typewriter. His writing is forthcoming in Iowa Review and Boston Review. He works for Green Mountains Review, and will be in residence this summer at the Künstlerhaus Vorwerk-Stift in Hamburg. Find him at www.poetforhire.org, or on the corner of Royal & St. Peter.
Congratulations to Christopher Romaguera who recently accepted a Master’s Scholarship to attend the MFA program in creative writing at the University of New Orleans. Christopher, former student of Allison Alsup, received more than one full-ride offer for an MFA program, but ultimately chose UNO in part so that he could continue to work as a journalist, reporting on undocumented migrant issues and New Orleans’ the public defenders office, topics he’s been researching and writing about for some time. Of course, we’re all delighted that he’s staying in New Orleans. We wish to best of luck to Christopher as he pursues his MFA and look forward to reading more of his creative non-fiction and poetry and seeing him around town!
In the competitive world of literary publishing, contests can be especially hard to navigate. Earlier this month, NOWW fiction instructor Allison Alsup won her fourth literary contest. She’s also placed in numerous other contests. Anyone familiar with her work knows that Allison Alsup’s fiction is remarkable, but she believes her luck with contests is also about strategy. Fortunately for us, Allison agreed to do a Q & A to share what she’s learned about contests with our readers.
You’ve won four contests, most recently with the Dana Award for Short Fiction, and placed in several others, which is quite an accomplishment. I’m trying to avoid asking you what your secret is. Instead, I’m going to ask you about your strategies. In general, how do you decide which contests to send your work to?
Great question. There’s been some trial and error. There are a lot of contests (my go to source for contest listings remains Poets and Writers) and frankly, some may be just too competitive for me to consider. So numbers do come into play. For instance, I’d love to win the Missouri Review’s annual contest. But let’s face it: with 700-800 folks entering, it starts to feel like a lottery more than a contest. In other words, it feels like too much luck or randomness enters the process. When the numbers are more in the 100-250 range, I feel more control over the process—fewer readers involved—and like there’s more of a chance for quality to really rise to the top.
How do I know the Missouri Review gets these high numbers? Because I entered this contest last fall and was told after the fact. (My story didn’t warrant even an honorable mention). But I tuck that fact away and next year, I probably won’t be entering again. In general, big name magazines tend to draw more entries. Instead, with the likes of the Missouri Review, I’m going to continue to try for a regular submission. Perhaps they’ll accept one of my stories while I still walk this earth.
Another factor in my selection has nothing to do with numbers but with a sense of the outfit that’s offering the contest. I always look at the site to learn about both the contest rules and the journal or organization itself. Sometimes you get a feel for the type of material the journal tends to publish. Many journals will offer a portion of their material online, so non-subscribers can see what the journal is about. Since the folks that choose these stories are likely your initial contest readers, you’re not going to get out of the slush pile if your work is aesthetically at odds with their taste. I don’t tend to write avant-garde or metafiction, and a lot of my stories are historical. So if a journal’s guidelines make a point of using phrases like “contemporary society” or “pressing issues facing the world today,” I’m not submitting. However, there are plenty of journals where the sky’s the limit or that value a traditionally crafted story. Those are worth my consideration.
What do you feel contests offer a writer? How do you feel contests have helped your career?
Contests offer some degree of legitimacy, especially to emerging writers. Often there’s publication involved, and a check for $1000 never hurts. I’m not going to downplay the importance of validation either. It was essential when years ago, I made the decision to begin devoting significant portions of my time to writing. We all need that Yes! moment. When I won the first contest, the editor called as I was helping my husband install a gutter on our home. For a week, I didn’t even mind washing dishes.
But contests for me are really about being able to build a stronger cover letter, either for journal submissions or when trying to get an agent. Those are never slam-dunks, no matter how many contests you’ve won, but mentioning contest wins or prizes does help. And that’s what a contest is: a prize that can be won by someone who doesn’t yet have a book or hasn’t been published in Glimmer Train. It’s a way to announce that someone besides your mother and who has experience reading a lot, a lot of stories thinks you’re a spiffy writer.
Additionally, contests are almost always read anonymously. When you regularly submit to a journal, that’s not true. The editors look at your cover letter, and your previous publications. In a contest, the only criterion is the quality of the story itself. That’s not to say that some very well published writers don’t enter contests. But your entry ticket is the same as theirs, and if you write the better story, their credentials won’t get them a better read. Plus, your story will be judged against the contest pile only. Regular magazine submissions often number in the thousands. In most cases, a magazine will receive many fewer contest entries than regular submissions.
Some people might be concerned about the expense of submitting to contests. Do you have any advice about how to decide which ones are worthwhile?
In addition to the number of entrants, you should consider what’s being offered. Money and publication? Is there more than one prize—i.e., first, second, and third place? Are all entries considered for publication? I once entered a story in a contest sponsored by The Madison Review. It didn’t win, but the readers liked it enough to publish it as a regular submission. Also, even if you don’t receive publication, being a finalist in a contest is cause for mention in a future cover letter.
Beware if you’re prone to gambling! I suggest setting a dollar limit and sticking with it. If you’re already doing taxes as a writer, you can deduct contest fees. You’ll also know that you are supporting the journal or organization sponsoring the contest, as contest fees often help literary magazines keep afloat. You’ll most likely get a copy of the journal with the contest winner—again, useful in case you want to submit again.
How do writing contests fit into your overall submissions strategies? For instance, do you send a new story to contests before sending it to magazines?
I do both. I begin with top journals and contests I think I have a shot at. In truth, I often feel like I have a better chance at some contests than say, Ploughshares, which no matter how many times I send to, will reject me. Ditto for any number of uber-competitive journals. I tend to see those magazines as lotteries as well.
In terms of the work itself, it has to be your best. The craft must be evident from the first page. And the material should be unusual in some way—either in terms of the setting, theme, structure, or voice. A typical coming of age or divorce story isn’t going to stand out, no matter how well crafted. But if I finish a story and am amazed that I actually pulled it off, like, “How did I manage that?” Well, that may be a contender.
Ben Aleshire is a poet for hire. Check out this TV profile of him on News With A Twist!
Here’s an excerpt from the feature:
NEW ORLEANS – In the middle of the day, in the middle of the street, a New Orleans poet is now for hire.
All you have to do is give Benjamin Aleshire an idea and about ten minutes and he’ll create a custom-made poem just for you. Or just for anybody you’d like a custom-made poem written for.
WGNO News with a Twist features guy Wild Bill Wood is watching Benjamin as he bikes to work and sets up on Royal Street near St. Peter.
Benjamin works mostly on weekends.
That’s when he bangs out his beauties. Bangs out means he types them. Yes, on a typewriter from the sixties.
“It was Sunday in New Orleans, and that meant it was time for a second line. The sun wasn’t quite down yet, but the drums were already thumping along Rampart like the plodding heartbeat of the city. Drums always got us in the mood for a funeral.”
Congrats to Derrick Boden, former student of NOWW instructors Tom Andes and Allison Alsup, whose story, “The Rot Parade” got picked up by Freeze Frame Fiction. Check out the whole story here.
The award comes with a $1000 prize. The winning story, “Egyptian Deities” is a stand alone piece from her novel-in-progress.
A second story by Allison was chosen as a finalist .
Writing about your life can be challenging. It can be painful to write about a personal experience, or feel threatening to look at it from a new perspective. We often come up against our own sadness, anger, and remorse, and our judgments can make it difficult to write ourselves as full-bodied “characters.” Applying self-compassion in the writing process can help us explore personal subject matter with courage and honesty.
This Saturday’s writing retreat combines a series of writing prompts with self-compassion cultivation practices in order to help you explore the stories of your life. In a relaxed and supportive environment, you will participate in exercises designed to increase your capacity for mindfulness and self-compassion, and you will have ample time to generate new writing.
Click here to sign up!
Facilitator Lara Naughton is a New Orleans-based writer, teacher and compassion trainer. With more than twenty years of experience, she has worked with students K-12 as well as adults, and has led workshops with individuals who have faced challenging circumstances, including homelessness, domestic violence, HIV/AIDS, wrongful conviction, incarceration, and torture. She is a certified Compassion Cultivation Trainer through the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University, and Chair of Creative Writing at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Her writing includes the documentary stageplay Never Fight A Shark in Water: The Wrongful Conviction of Gregory Bright, and memoir The Jaguar Man.
Sign up here!
The Neighborhood Story Project and the University of New Orleans Press present… the 2017 WRITE-A-THON
Looking for a chance to get a big chunk of writing done and support a worthy cause, with free food and other perks to boot? Read on!
Taking place April 22-23, the Write-A-Thon, emphasis on ‘Thon,’ is a 24-hour extravaganza of Writing, Eating, & Reading. Write-A-Thoners are encouraged to hunker down & write away for as much of the event as they dare.
Great food from The Joint and Pagoda Cafe will keep you nourished; the clacking of other keyboards will inspire your own to make clacking sounds. Plus, there will be an offering of workshops by esteemed local writers. At hour 22 (22!) of the event, Write-A-Thoners are invited to share the fruit of their work in a public reading emceed by Janae Pierre, WWNO’s local host of All Things Considered and All Things New Orleans.
Funds raised by the 2017 Write-A-Thon will benefit both NSP & UNO Press, supporting projects around literacy, community advocacy, New Orleans cultural preservation, & the distribution of stories we haven’t heard before. As with a traditional marathon, Write-A-Thoners will crowdsource donations from their personal networks to support their participation in the event.
By funding writing-based work through writing, the Write-A-Thon is all about stories and those who write them.
Whether as a writer or a donor, we hope you’ll join us!
For more information and to sign up, visit: https://give.classy.org/writeathon