On Being the 20th Person to Read from New Work in the Middle of a Weeklong Writing Workshop

July 1, 2015 § 4 Comments

The 20th Reader

The 20th Reader

When Sharon Stephenson went to the podium at the end of a long night of student readings at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshops we all secretly glanced at our watches, and then she read this (read or listen):


A multi-genre reading with more than, say, five people is an example of how relative time can be to the observer.  Time dilation only goes one way, as Albert Einstein and Hendrick Lorentz make clear in their papers.  Therefore, three minutes can sometimes feel like twenty, but never does three minutes become anything less than three full minutes.

In terms of nerves, the twenty presenters should fall on a broad distribution.  Some may drink a glass of wine in their dorm rooms to calm themselves on their presentation night, but because they are drinking alone and the dorm rooms are universally depressing, perhaps they will drink two glasses or even three, rationalizing that a glass of wine these days is relative to the size of the glass and they are drinking out of an old paper coffee cup, and that makes them sad. Others may wish they had something stronger that won’t make them smell of cocktail parties.  Vodka.  Xanax.  They may find themselves spending inordinate amounts of time wishing they had some.

Many presenters on the distribution of twenty will be incapable of listening with intention to any of the readings that precede theirs. Instead these presenters will be overly concerned about the material they will read, even though they are holding their poetry or story or essay on real paper, double spaced, in an oversized font, decorated with highlighter. They may also be disturbed by temperature fluctuations in their extremities, issues with saliva levels in the mouth, questionable happenings in their GI tract.

Those who took Xanax or consumed alcohol may second guess their earlier decision, a decision that seemed so reasonable a few hours ago.  Instead of listening with intention to the readers preceding them, they could be correlating their physical symptoms, increased perspiration, for example, as side effects of self-medicating with alcohol or Xanax.

Very few readers are delusional, but they do exist.  In fact, one stands before you now, an outlier on the distribution. We rare delusional readers believe that perhaps this specific event will be magical.  Our voice, our cadence, our brilliance on the page, will be memorable, so memorable that perhaps a member of the audience will text their great uncle, who is perhaps Garrison Keillor. Garrison Keillor, who is 72 years old, is probably considering retirement and worried about the future of A Prairie Home Companion. Perhaps the audience member will text Garrison Keillor and tell him that he should not worry – this 20th reader at the Kenyon Review Writer’s Workshop has it all buttoned up.

Sharon Stephenson is a nuclear physicist with over thirty peer-reviewed articles.  She also writes literary nonfiction and has gotten some of it published thanks to teachers like Rebecca McClanahan.  Her works have appeared or are forthcoming in Fourth Genre, Shenandoah, Hippocampus, Redivider, Connotation Press, Referential Magazine, The Dead Mule, Pure Slush, and real: stories true. Sharon lives in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where she walks to work and teaches the next generation of scientists as a professor at Gettysburg College.  Read her blog at http://www.strangeandcharming.com/, tweet her at @Sharon_Steph

On Essaying: Between Anticipation and Suspense

August 11, 2014 § 1 Comment

Geeta Kothari

Geeta Kothari

Kenyon Review‘s nonfiction editor Geeta Kothari offers an in-depth analysis of why a recent KR essay was chosen, including a fascinating look at how the author, Mara Naselli, switches from second-person to first-person early in the essay and how she incorporates research in a personal story.  Here is Kothari’s opening, followed by a link to the full discussion:

Essays that reveal their true nature as they progress have to strike a balance between misdirection and staying the course. The art lies in the writer’s ability to establish the reader’s trust as she feels her way towards the heart of her story. She must find a balance between anticipation and suspense, between questions and answers. Re-reading “On Being a Mother,” I’m struck again by Mara Naselli’s ability to create this balance and more.

Reading Kothari’s full discussion here.

The 2013 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest

January 29, 2013 § 1 Comment

Do you write briefly, but can’t resist that urge to make things up? Here’s your contest:

The 2013 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest
Submissions Accepted From February 1st-28th!
The Kenyon Review is pleased to announce the 2013 KR Short Fiction Contest.

The contest is open to all writers who have not yet published a book of fiction. Submissions must be 1200 words or fewer. There is no entry fee.

The Kenyon Review will publish the winning short story in the Winter 2014 issue, and the author will be awarded a scholarship to attend the 2013 Writers Workshop, June 15th-22nd, in Gambier, Ohio. 

Katharine Weber, critically-acclaimed author of five novels, including Triangle and True Confections, will be the final judge.

We’d be grateful if you could forward this e-mail to any interested writers you may know.

Click here for the submission guidelines.

The Fifth Genre

February 24, 2012 § 29 Comments

No one ever said John D’Agata wasn’t an interesting guy, just that his claim that he doesn’t write nonfiction but works in some fifth genre, the essay, confuses many of us — in the writing, editing, teaching world — who have always counted the essay as nonfiction.  Turns out even his latest book, Lifespan of a Fact, is only marginally true …

” … we both knowingly amped up the hostility of our comments.  I think of the form of the exchange between Jim and me as an exaggerated farce.  At its core is a real argument, a debate that we really had and that continued throughout our real-life fact-checking process.  But at some point during that process we also decided to do a book about the process … and turned the volume up on how we discussed these issues.  …. we knew that most readers would probably not be fascinated by two dudes having a sober discussion about the very nerdy issue of veracity in nonfiction.”

These nuggets come from a very interesting interview over at The Kenyon Review blog.  Here’s D’Agata on where he fits in the nonfiction spectrum (in which he contradicts himself, perhaps, on his previous claim that he does not consider himself a nonfiction writer):

“There is absolutely no difference between McPhee and me—other than that McPhee is about ten thousand times more talented than I!  The other difference of course is that McPhee has chosen one set of artistic restraints and I’ve chosen another. “

On teaching his views on fidelity to fact to Iowa MFA students:

“… by no means do all of my students agree with my rather lefty approach to the issue.  In any given year, we have students in our program who identify themselves as literary journalists, memoirists, lyric essayists, and everything else in between.  And none of them has a predictable opinion about facts in ‘nonfiction.’  However, no matter where these students fall on the “veracity” spectrum, I can guarantee that every single one of them identifies him or herself as an artist, first and foremost.  …  Actually, I take that back.  I do have one student currently who is genuinely struggling with the term “artist.” He doesn’t like it. And he’s also kind of unhappy in the program, unfortunately, because I think he feels out of place and misunderstood.  So I just lied.  I apologize.”

John D’Agata makes some good points, of course, but still leaves us scratching our heads.  John, can we just settle this and just call what you do the “fessay” or the “essaction”?

Yes, You CAN Tell People: On Writers and Self-Promotion

March 12, 2011 § 33 Comments

A graduate student here at Ohio University had a nice literary magazine publication recently, and when I asked him for details, so I could share his good news with others in the program, he e-mailed back, “I’m not really one for self-promotion (makes me feel a little icky).”

I hear this often – “I don’t like self-promotion” or “she’s so self-promoting”– as if it were a horrible literary transgression to make the results of one’s considerable effort known and available.  Why is it shameful, after having worked very hard at something, and had some success in seeing it to publication, to then tell folks?  I don’t get it.

Sure, we’ve all seen authors push their work and accomplishments rudely, brazenly, and stupidly, especially in the era of Facebook. Does this mean we must rule out all mention of one’s publications, however? Must all good news and honest celebration be labeled with the same nasty brush?

Consider. Where would we be as writers (and how would our publishers ever survive) if no one ever told anyone that they had published a poem in The Kenyon Review or a book with University of Nebraska Press?  The ship of Independent Literary Publishing is not exactly sailing in a sea of money right now, so why do we as writers go out of our way to make sure we aren’t helping out at least a bit?  Trust me, the editor of the small literary magazine would be thrilled if three of your friends subscribed, or even bought one issue.

And it isn’t always about money, of course.  Most of us in the writing/publishing community would agree that the literary arts are not enough valued in our culture, so how does sneering at any author who makes even the smallest mention of their latest publication help that along? Let’s hide that light under a million bushels.

Listen.  If one of my friends publishes something, I want to know. Sometimes just for the ’feel good’ moment.  Sometimes so I can track the poem down and read it.  But I’ll never know, if all mention of one’s publications is seen as conceited self-promotion.

So let’s be reasonable. I’d like to propose a few guidelines for the sharing of literary success.  If you agree, please share these guidelines with others, and please share your good news:

1.     Self promotion is when you spam all of your friends and those who are barely friends and repeatedly say “buy my stuff,” or “look at my stuff.”  We don’t need daily updates.

2.     Self promotion is NOT when you share good news with fellow strugglers (like grad students in your program, or the faculty who are rooting for your success).  That’s just being part of a supportive community.

3.     To my mind, even a link on Facebook, or on your blog, or as a signature line in your e-mail (subtle, not blaring), is NOT self promotion, at least not the bad kind that folks want to scorn and avoid.  Certain people wish to know your good news, or read your poem, or buy your book, so it is fully acceptable to tell them that the work is now available.  It is, in fact, inconsiderate not to tell them.

4.     Tell them once, of course, not fifty times, and give them a clean link rather than e-mailing PDFs of everything you’ve ever written.

5.     If you assume your friends would hate you for your success rather than be pleased for you, maybe it is time to look for new friends.  Or look at yourself.

6.     Writing is not bad.  Publishing your writing is not bad.  Don’t treat it as if it were.

— Dinty W. Moore,  editor, Brevity

Kenyon Review Writers Workshop Upcoming

February 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

Applications are now available for The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, a week-long series of writing workshops held June 19-26, 2010 on the campus of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.

The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop focuses on the generation and revision of new work. Instructors employ challenging exercises and lead the groups in close readings and discussions of participants’ work. In addition, the instructors schedule personal meetings to discuss workshop assignments and other projects. This year’s session includes workshops in fiction, poetry, and literary nonfiction. Workshop leaders include David Baker (poetry), Linda Gregerson (poetry), Rebecca McClanahan (literary nonfiction) [Brevity editor] Dinty W. Moore (literary nonfiction), Ron Carlson (fiction), Tara Ison (fiction) and Nancy Zafris (fiction).

The Online Versus Print Debate Continues

November 3, 2009 § Leave a comment

Kenyon Review editor David Lynn has a thoughtful post on the KROnline Blog about the debate between online and print.  What we like about David’s discussion is that he is honest about what worries many writers, especially those facing tenure or promotion in traditional English programs, but he also acknowledges that new technology and new media tend to win out in the end.

Having just finished a new short story, Lynn is considering whether he wants to send it to a more traditional paper-and-ink magazine — such as the one he edits and values so highly — or to an online journal:

Another possibility would be, as I’ve mentioned, to send the new story to any one of the dozens of electronic journals burgeoning on the Internet. But what would it mean for me to abandon print? Less status? Not least foregoing the tactile pleasure of holding the printed thing itself in my hand? How much is that worth?

I set out the questions this way to make the point that this is not merely a hypothetical: something precious to me as a writer is on the line. Because, of course, there’s the larger issue as well: what does the relationship between the print Kenyon Review and the electronic KROnline mean for the writing community? Should authors be as willing — more than merely willing, should they be as happy and enthusiastic — for their work to appear in our online journal as in print?

You can read the entirety of David Lynn’s post here.

A Writing Workshop, By Any Other Name

May 30, 2008 § 4 Comments

And speaking of The Kenyon Review, the KR Blog makes note of yet another “withering attack” on the concept of writing workshops. The attacks just seem to come without end, from people who very often have little idea what they are talking about. Hanif Kureishi is certainly one of them.

wkshopBut this latest stupid attack did force to me to reflect some on my pedagogy, and it finally hit me, like a soft mallet to the head, that I don’t teach a writing workshop – I’m not sure many of us in the academic creative writing field actually do – I teach an editing workshop.

Here’s what I mean:

A good workshop assists a young writer in seeing how a reader might encounter and experience their manuscript (with the help of some artificial readers – the workshop members.) Then, with the help of a prodding and encouraging teacher, the student is helped to see how to take what she has learned and re-vision what she has already written.

She learns how to take a muddy scene and make it clear. How to take a soggy bit of language and make it crisp. How to take a limp narrative arc and find some spine. How to take an undifferentiated character and create, well, character.

She learns, too, how voice can be altered, and how small changes can make a difference in point-of-view. This is editing that is being taught, and more specifically, self-editing. A student who learns the rigors and wonders of self-editing, before launching her work into the world, has learned quite a bit, and has greatly increased her chances of finding a publisher/audience.

We should call it an editing workshop, then, or a revision workshop, since that’s what we are teaching and modeling. If it were truly a writing workshop, those of us who teach would be standing over our students’ shoulders as they attempted their first drafts, and goodness knows I don’t do that.

So let’s call them poetry editing workshops, or creative nonfiction editing workshops, and do away with the perennial and pointless question: “Can writing be taught?”

– Dinty

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