Seven Deadly Sins: A Writers Workshop Reverie

June 30, 2014 § 17 Comments

under the cat

post-workshop cat therapy

Just in time for the summer workshop season, a guest post from Irene Hoge Smith:

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.  As you know, it has been about a hot minute since my last confession.  More of the same, I’m sorry to say.


I pretty much cleaned out the book store and didn’t bother putting it on my credit card.  There’s no security system and those sweet little cashiers don’t have a clue.  I just browsed around with my Kenyon Review bag and snagged the new McClintock memoir and the beef stew guy’s Panic/Desire thing, and four or five poetry collections (they’re all really thin) and I think three different writing guides.  I just put the nice purple sweatshirt on over my tank top and gave the kid a big smile on the way out.  He never noticed.


Well, there’s that hot guy in the other workshop, really young but clearly looking for a mother-figure.  By Wednesday I had him writing my essays for me, which meant I had the afternoons off to shop (see GREED, also GLUTTONY).


Maybe that third order of tater tots at the Village Inn counts?  All the swag from the little boutique, maybe even the lodging upgrade to North Campus apartments?    I don’t know if that was worth it, though, since I actually had to make the bed myself and nobody comes in to hang up the towels (see SLOTH) and the AC doesn’t  make it up to the third floor (see WRATH).


I know I should read that Lopate book, the everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-essays-way-better-than-you-will-ever-write doorstop of a paperback?  It’s supposed to be some kind of (excuse the expression, Father) Bible for essay writers, but it’s sooooo long!  I was going to do poetry this year because poems are, like, short, and it sounded like a gut.  But they’re all going on about assonance and consonance and anapest and dactyls and enjambment and boy, I really can’t be bothered.  So I’m doing creative nonfiction. Easy, right?  You can just be, you know, creative!  And since it’s nonfiction you don’t even have to make stuff up.


Do I have “inordinate uncontrolled anger?” Well, sometimes, like at assholes who won’t publish my work, who wouldn’t?  And, yes,  I know it’s supposed to be a sin to hold on to anger at someone who is dead, but don’t bother giving me a penance for that one, Father, because it’s basically my whole book project.  I’m not giving that one up.


I’m not going to another one of my friend Kaylie’s readings.  Two books in a year?  She should let somebody else have a chance for a change.  I could have done that book if I’d tried.  And the other one, too.  (see PRIDE).


I want to be the best and most-admired writer here, but also I want everyone else to love me so much they don’t mind that I’m so fabulous.  And I want to have all that adoration without having to go to the trouble of really reading other people’s stuff (see SLOTH) and telling them how good it is and, you know, sharing the limelight (see ENVY).  And I’m really not bragging, Father, but my essay is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius and I’m pissed as hell at that Eggars guy for stealing my title (see WRATH).

Well, that’s about it, Father.   Do I have to stick around?  Can we skip the penance part?  (see SLOTH)


Irene Hoge Smith lives near Washington, DC.  She is a psychotherapist, writer, and writing workshop recidivist.  She participates in an alumni writing group with the New Directions writing program at the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis and a memoir workshop with the author Sara Mansfield Taber.  She has attended workshops with Rebecca McClanahan and Dinty W. Moore (at Kenyon Review Summer Writers Workshop) and Mark Doty (at the Blue Flower Arts Winter Writing Workshop).  She is working on a memoir (about her mother FrancEyE, who lived and had a child with the poet Charles Bukowski in the early 1960’s) and nonfiction essays.


On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character

December 20, 2010 § 6 Comments

From the master of the essay form, Philip Lopate:

In personal essays, nothing is more commonly met than the letter I. I think it a perfectly good word, one no writer should be ashamed to use. Especially is first person legitimate for this form, so drawn to the particulars of character and voice. The problem with “I” is not that it is in bad taste, but that fledgling personal essayists may think they’ve said or conveyed more than they actually have with that one syllable. In their minds, that “I” is swarming with background and a lush, sticky past, and an almost too fatal specificity, whereas the reader, encountering it for the first time in a new piece, sees only a slender telephone pole standing in the sentence, trying to catch a few signals to send on. In truth, even the barest “I” holds a whisper of promised engagement, and can suggest a caress in the midst of more stolid language. What it doesn’t do, however, is give us a clear picture of who is speaking.

To do that, the writer needs to build herself into a character. And I use the word character much the same way the fiction writer does. E.M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, drew a famous distinction between “flat” and “round” characters — between those fictional personages seen from the outside who acted with the predictable consistency of caricatures, and those whose complexities or teeming inner lives we came to know. But whether the writer chooses to present characters as flat or round, or a combination, the people on the page — it scarcely matters whether they appear in fiction or nonfiction — will need to become knowable enough in their broad outlines to behave “believably,” at the same time as free willed enough to intrigue us with surprises. The art of characterization comes down to establishing a pattern of habits and actions for the person you are writing about and introducing variations into the system. In this respect, building a character is a pedagogic model, because you are teaching the reader what to expect.


Mean Week, Brevity Style

October 27, 2010 § 7 Comments

It is “Mean Week” over at HTMLGiant, which means the blogger folks say mean and provocative things about other writers and other magazines and other blogs and everyone gets all snarky in the comments and insults the original blog author, and in this way, if we understand correctly, everyone gets a good chuckle and site stats go through the roof.  Oh, the internet is such a wonderful place.

So, in order to increase our site stats, we here at the Brevity Blog are going to be way mean too, starting now:

1) Philip Lopate, you are too tall.

2) Lee Gutkind, lots of people don’t know how to pronounce your last name.

3) Robin Hemley, your first name is also the name of a bird.

4) Gay Talese … oh never mind.

Creative Nonfiction Relaunches as a Quarterly Magazine

March 16, 2010 § 1 Comment

If you haven’t seen the new format/new content Creative Nonfiction magazine, you should rush to a bookstore/ the subscription kiosk /or the AWP bookfair and score a copy.  Looks smart, reads smarter.

Here’s a brief review from the Pittsburgh City Paper:

For 37 issues, CNF was basically a paperback book. Now it’s got the newstand-friendly dimensions of Esquire — though with 90 two-color matte pages, not 140 glossy, full-color ones. And while only ads sport photos, CNF features more graphics and spot illustrations.

But the emphasis remains on the words, with author interviews and writing advice now joining the essays and narrative journalism. The spring issue includes Details editor-at-large Jeff Gordinier’s in-depth interview with Dave Eggers (spotlighting Zeitoun, Egger’s new nonfiction book about a Syrian immigrant’s Hurricane Katrina travails). Ian Morris, of venerable, soon-to-be-online-only TriQuarterly, ponders the future of the literary magazine. And a seven-writer themed package on immortality includes both philosopher Todd May (“Teaching Death”) and an excerpt from Rebecca Skloot’s best-selling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Skloot read at the relaunch. She noted that work on her critically acclaimed book began when she was Gutkind’s grad student at Pitt, 12 years ago.

… Last word goes to veteran essayist Phillip Lopate, whose piece on veracity in storytelling in the new CNF upbraids writers who “thinly imagine” real-life scenes they haven’t actually witnessed.

“The fact that we can see things in our minds’ eyes doesn’t necessarily make them literarily valid,” Lopate writes. “The harder imaginative act for nonfiction writers is seeing the pattern in actual experience and putting it into some sort of order so that what seemed random is given narrative significance and symbolic resonance. Understanding is thick imagining.

via Creative Nonfiction begins life anew as a quarterly magazine. – Books – Book Reviews & Features – Pittsburgh City Paper.

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