December 10, 2018 § 12 Comments
By Ann Weikers
When I left corporate life to embark on an MFA in writing, I decided a style makeover was in order. I wanted to fit in, to look the part.
I cobbled together a winter wardrobe and arrived at my first residency in a snowstorm, decked out in a Mad Bomber hat and giant UGG boots pulled up over leggings, hoping to look a little less like the grandma I could easily be. For the summer residency I sported Birkenstocks and skinny rolled up jean shorts. With the addition of a hefty multi-zippered knapsack, I was set. Though I realized that throughout the country twelve-year-olds were clamoring for the identical wardrobe, I consoled myself with the conviction that all my choices were at least practical.
The bomber hat would keep my head dry and warm. Because it clasped firmly under my chin, it wouldn’t get carried off in a blizzard as I trudged across campus hoping not to die slipping on ice. Toward that end—not falling and breaking a hip—the UGG boots would be life savers. Their wide bottoms and deep treads would stabilize me like pontoons.
My Birkenstocks, which admittedly looked like something a troglodyte would wear if troglodytes wore shoes, with their German engineered cork footbed, had the added feature of preventing my arches from falling. My skinny shorts held in my tummy, the most welcome quality of any of my utilitarian threads.
To help me choose that wardrobe, I’d scrutinized website images of students gathering on campuses. I’d made two columns on a yellow legal pad, one headed “Purchase,” and one headed “Wouldn’t Be Caught Dead In.” I was satisfied I’d made the right, albeit incredibly unattractive, purchases. And I was proud to have eschewed some of the other fads, the items on my “Wouldn’t Be Caught Dead In” list.
First is the modern version of the beret, the floppy beanie. I won’t wear a floppy beanie because I want warm ears. Worn fashionably, these hats must flop to the back or side of the head, leaving the ears exposed to subzero weather. Also, I won’t wear a floppy beanie because it reminds me of the hats atop the heads of the seven dwarves, most particularly Dopey. Dopey is happy, silly, speechless, bald as a baby, and portrayed as an awkward child. I ascribe much of his goofiness to his maladjusted purple cap.
Next on the “no” list: ripped jeans. This trend has been around for a long while, and somehow has not lost its appeal to many. There’s a certain impracticality to wearing holey jeans in single digit weather, but ripped jeans still abound in every season.
In the days when punk rock first came on the scene in the seventies, ripped clothing was just one element of punk’s anti-establishment dress code. Wearing torn clothing paid homage to the genre and was arguably a link to that form of art. Now, though, frayed, holey jeans are worn by everyone from infants to soccer moms, with no link to protest or art. No longer are ripped jeans an apropos cultural statement, especially when they are worn over diapers. The trend has lost its artistic anchor.
Finally, I’ll never wear bobby socks with shorts or skirts. Bobby socks in Mary Jane high heels were an essential part of the “goth” naughty schoolgirl trend years back. While I seldom see the tartan plaid tunics now, the ankle socks feature of the trend is strangely still alive. When I typed into the keyboard “Bobby Socks with mini-skirts,” my screen filled with porn site links. I quickly ended the search and deleted the search history.
On campus for my first Vermont College of Fine Arts Winter MFA Residency, I sat in the stunning high-ceilinged meeting hall called “The Chapel,” where students were being welcomed by the program director. Behind her on the stage rose the floor to ceiling pipes of an immense organ. What a beautiful place to begin.
The garb around me, bundling my fellow students, was the garb of practical people, all just trying to keep warm. Yes, there were one or two floppy beanies, but I saw no ripped jeans, no bobby socks with skirts. UGG boots were not de rigueur here.
I would see both ripped jeans and bobby socks in subsequent residencies, and even an evening gown and a full-on Western suit with bolo tie and cowboy hat at graduation. I would see rompers, revealing laced bodices, floor swishing skirts and miniskirts, pretty ensembles straight out of Talbots, everyday Levis and faded tees. In short, there was no uniform.
The clothes that had mattered to me, but likely to no one else, had served their purpose: to boost my confidence the tiniest notch as I first walked among that busy hive of writers with terror lurking beneath my cozy layers. So many were blessedly as self-conscious as I, equally alarmed at the prospect of the critiques we would face for the next two years. All were equally committed to getting our words on the page and getting it right. Whatever garb adorned the reader, the lecturer, the workshop leader, the fellow student, words quickly became the only important thing.
One of my writing teachers wisely said, “You don’t become a writer by donning a beret.” I get it. My bomber hat will never turn me into the next Joan Didion, but I’ll still wear it at my writing desk on chilly days, earflaps down to muffle distractions.
Ann Weikers is a candidate for an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She received her J.D. from Villanova University School of Law and after decades in law firms and corporations, decided to change her wardrobe and become a writer. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband.
August 31, 2017 § 6 Comments
Surprise! It’s a podcast! We’ve got a few episodes packed and ready from a whirlwind summer of interviews, so we hope you’ll be enjoying (slightly) more frequent listening. Stream the show right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.
Episode #6 features an interview with Donna Talarico-Beerman on the process of becoming a small press, running a conference, and balancing her own writing time in there, too. We’re also talking all things writing conference over the next few episodes, and we’ve got brief on-the-spot interviews from Lee Martin, Sue William Silverman, and some lovely writer-participants from the Postgraduate Writing Conference at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below. Next episode, we’ll be talking with Kristen Arnett about her new book, Felt in the Jaw.
Show Notes: Episode #6 People and Books
Find out more about Donna Talarico-Beerman at her website.
Today’s the last day to submit to Remember in November
Donna’s essay in the Los Angeles Review, Things That Aren’t Theirs
Questions to ask of a character:
What do I wish for?
What do I hope for?
What is my greatest dream?
What is my greatest fear?
August 24, 2017 § 21 Comments
At the Postgraduate Writing Conference at the Vermont College of Fine Arts earlier this month, Andre Dubus III talked about his writing practice after his three children were born, when he was writing House of Sand and Fog. He and his wife both worked full time, and the hours outside work focused on parenting. He taught as an adjunct at several schools and picked up construction work on the side. How did he write?
Seventeen minutes at a time.
Each morning, he started his morning commute twenty minutes early. Each night, he came home twenty minutes late. At first he pulled into an apartment complex parking lot and wrote in the car, but after ten days someone called the police to check on him. Fortunately, he knew the officer. Dubus relocated to a nearby cemetery. It was quiet. Usually empty of people, especially at 5AM and 6PM. Every morning, and every night, seventeen minutes at a time, writing in pencil in a notebook. In summer, sweating with the car windows down; in winter, with the heat on until he got a carbon monoxide headache and had to stop. All the way to the end of the book.
True, some writers work best with large swaths of time. Writing residencies, the privileges of a spouse able to support the entire family, household help, co-working spaces–all grant us the luxury of time. But most of us have more things in our day than our artistic time, particularly if we’re not making a living (yet) at our art. And it’s hard to carve out substantial time in a busy family and/or professional life.
It’s hard to wrap our heads around this method–“Oh yes, I wrote four words a day for twelve years and then I had a book” is kind of what it sounds like, and it sounds a little ridiculous. For most of us, it’s re-thinking the writing process. There’s no settling-in time, no getting sucked down a research rabbithole that somehow led to Facebook.
But there’s value in touching the manuscript more often, even for shorter periods of time. Just like the atmosphere of a retreat, when our brain knows “I’ll be back at the page in a few hours,” we can find ourselves working through a plot line or suddenly realizing why a character did that awful thing while we’re moving through the world. Commuting with a song associated with our story on repeat, or with silent earbuds playing nothing while we think on the bus.
The first week of short writing bursts usually sucks, because it really is establishing a new habit, which takes time. But after ten days or so, the flow will be triggered by sitting down. You won’t have to work your way in any more.
Maybe it’ll work for you. Maybe it won’t. But there’s only one way to find out. This is a shorter-than-usual Brevity blog: why not take the extra minutes and write?
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be speaking at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference Sept. 8-10 in Lancaster, PA. Want a registration discount code to sign up for a pre-conference workshop? Tweet her!
August 8, 2017 § 10 Comments
So, you’re going to a writing conference! Workshops! Readings! Panels! Networking! Networking! Lots of networking! Mingling! Socializing! Bonding! Casual chatting through which lifelong writer friendships are forged! INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION AUGHLH JHJKGJKFGHFDGHAKJ–
Hang on, let me just breathe for a minute, and get off this ledge.
Perhaps, like me, you are a mewling, soft-skinned introvert hiding in a shiny I-talk-to-people-professionally-and-I’m-great-at-it shell. But somehow, our work has been found adequate, our check has been cashed, and we are at a writing conference. With group meals. Receptions. Post-reading cocktail hours. Casual gatherings. Late-night lounge time. A few days or a week full of priceless opportunities to open our mouths only to alternate feet.
Fear not. Brevity is here for you. Simply print this handy list of conference conversation openers, tuck it in the back of your name tag, and you’re ready for any writing-related exchange between humans. Just approach any writer or writers, and begin.
- “Wow…that reading…what did you think?”
- “Gosh, isn’t (insert name of workshop leader) just fantastic?”
- “Whose workshop are you in? Oh, they’re great! Tell me all about it!”
- “What are you working on? Oh, that’s great! Tell me all about it!”
- “Is it me or are all these rooms freezing/boiling/too dark/blindingly bright?”
- “How about that box wine!”
- “Where did you come in from? Oh, that’s great! Tell me all about it!”
- “Is it me or is your dorm room mattress horrible, too? Tell me all about your back problems!”
- “Have you seen the book sale yet? I have no idea how I’m going to get them all in my bag.”
- “Box wine! Look, there’s box wine!”
Please note that #6, 9 and 10 can also be used for exiting conversations as needed.
Enjoy your new writing friends, and remember, soon you’ll be home again and can return to communicating with them only through keyboards.
Brevity’s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams is at conferences the next few weeks. Please come talk to her about box wine, lumbar issues and your writing.
June 12, 2015 § 4 Comments
A guest post from Vermont College Postgraduate Writers’ Conference director Ellen Lesser:
When Pamela Painter and I first brainstormed about adding Flash Fiction to the workshop lineup for this summer’s Postgraduate Writers’ Conference at Vermont College of Fine Arts, she noted that writers often imagine they don’t need to work at and study flash the way they do other genres. They think it’s easy because it’s short, I remember her telling me.
Painter, who’s been an ambassador for flash as both an award-winning author and revered teacher, will share her approaches to perfecting the form in her intensive small-group workshop in August. The Conference, held on VCFA’s Montpelier, VT campus August 10 – 16, still has a seat open at Painter’s table. Here’s her take on the experience awaiting her workshop participants:
In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner said that when writers deal with particular small problems, the work can approach perfection. This is so true of Flash Fiction. I expect that many of the flash stories from the workshop will end up being publishable. Three-fourths of the students in my last class [in Emerson’s MFA Program] have published their stories. They have written and revised small gems that do not need another word, another scene, a double ending.
In this workshop you will be reading work submitted for the class, you will be introduced to exercises that consider interesting and tighter ways to execute character and conflict, texture and detail, and you will be given an exercise to help you finish each story after the workshop is over. I want you to be as excited about Flash Fiction as I am, and to consider Flash Fiction as something you will write the rest of your life.
In short, it’s going to be an invigorating and valuable work-out, as part of a week’s immersion in craft and community. Interested writers can visit the webpage at www.vcfa.edu/pwc for all the details, and email me, Ellen Lesser, at firstname.lastname@example.org, to see if we still have a spot for you.
Ellen Lesser is a fiction writer and member of the MFA in Writing Program faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she also directs the annual Postgraduate Writers’ Conference. She aspires to write shorter stories.