writing workshops

Bunny woke me up at two-thirty in the morning because he was in need of a belly rub and, no connection whatsoever, a stroll around the garden to make sure there were no lurking beasts from which he had to protect us. That is the nature of our relationship: the dogs provide me with unconditional love, and I rub their bellies. Sometimes at an ungodly hour. Seems like I’ve got the better end of the deal.

Sometimes though I find it hard to get back to sleep, so I read or I go wandering around the internet. I just got back from that little jaunt around the webby world, and here’s what I stumbled across, an interesting opportunity.

Once in a while I have posted about Cary Tennis’s work. He’s an advice columnist at Salon.com who has been answering questions from the public for years now. If I remember correctly, he’s a writer, and not a psychologist or psychiatrist or therapist of any school. He’s just a writer with a gentle approach that appeals to a lot of people.

He has written columns that I loved, and some that I really, really disliked. I often disagree with him completely on how to approach a problem, but then that’s okay; he doesn’t need my approval and nobody asked my opinion, anyway. And there are dozens — if not hundreds — of regular Salon readers who are quick to comment on his columns. A few of them are sure to make the points I would have made, and many are not afraid to tell him that he’s got the wrong end of the stick. So really, it’s not about an advice column so much as it is a discussion set off by his answer to a letter from a stranger.

At any rate, Cary has a website, a collection of his columns in a new book, and also if you live in the San Francisco Bay area, you could take a writing class from him. In his home. His description:

If you write, if you want to write, if you dream of writing, this workshop can help you discover ideas, dreams, emotions, images and stories of profound significance, and recall them in tranquility, in their original voice, with all their original brilliance and luminosity. And it can give you the structure and support you need to make those stories, poems and memories as good and true as they can be.

I invite you to join us. The workshop will take place at my house in San Francisco on Tuesday nights from 7 to 10 p.m. The price is $380 for 10 weeks. Enrollment is limited to 12 writers. E-mail me at workshops@carytennis.com,

I suggest that you read about his approach and philosophy of writing, and then if you live in his area, have the time, interest and money, you go on ahead and take his course. And then let us know how it went, okay? Because I’m dead curious.

Writers are always looking for ways to make a living that cuts out the publisher. A great many serious writers end up teaching — not because they like it, or are good at it — but because it’s one way to pay the rent that doesn’t involve contracts and marketing and all that other awful business that goes along with publishing a book. My guess is that if you polled everybody who writes seriously and who also teaches writing, you’d find that the vast majority would give up teaching immediately — if such a thing were financially feasible. This doesn’t mean the individual is a bad teacher. There are some excellent teachers out there who would simply rather be doing something else with their time.

I have to assume that Cary Tennis likes teaching and wants to do more of it, because there he is offering the opportunity to work with him, in his home, on your writing. This is not a get-rich-quick scheme. If my arithmetic is right (and that’s an iffy proposition right there), you’d bring in an annual salary of about 20k if you ran these workshops back to back for fifty-two weeks, and had an average of ten people in each class. Certainly taking a class at a college would cost you more.

So there you are: somebody who is teaching writing because he wants to.

book book book goose

We have to go out of town for a couple days. Nobody’s dead or dying, just some business we need to take care of. I’ll be back Wednesday night.

In the meantime, a few words about a few books:

The Heart-Shaped Box, Joe Hill

This is a very effective, evocative thriller/horror type story with a lot of interesting twists. The main characters: a 50-something hard core rock star, his Goth girlfriend, his ex-exgirlfriend (who committed suicide after he sent her packing), and a really nasty ghost who arrives on the rockstar’s doorstep in the form of a dead man’s suit. The rockstar bought the suit in an on-line auction, and on a whim; he collects oddities, and the idea of buying a haunted suit appealed to him.

Except then it didn’t. The novel takes off fast, no long backstory or build up. There are touches that made my heart beat faster, in particular phone calls from people who should not be making phone calls. I think this really got to me as I have recurring dreams that are somewhat similar.

It’s hard to keep up the pace when you start off with a bang, but Hill mostly manages to do that. The climactic scene and the resolution come across as a bit stilted, as if Hill wrote himself into a corner and had to do some quick stepping to find a way out.

The final chapter really surprised me. It seems at first like a typical epilogue, what happens and how, but then an earlier character shows up at the door. I read this very carefully, thinking that maybe Hill was setting up a sequel, but when all was said and done, I think it was something much more subtle that he was trying to accomplish — and he succeeded.

Sometime soon I’m going to write about horror novels more generally, how they work for me or don’t, and why they are too much of a challenge for me to try to write.

City of Shadows, Ariana Franklin

I’m half way through this novel, which hooked me hard in the first few pages. It’s set in pre WWII Berlin (a setting and time I have always liked since I saw the film version of Cabaret and then went out to find Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, the source of the original stage play). I am finding a lot to admire about the character of Esther — a Russian refugee with terrible scars and a past to match. There’s a good mystery in this novel. I haven’t figured out yet what’s going on.

The Blade Itself, Marcus Sakey

I really love this genre, have I ever mentioned that?

This is a first novel, and here’s what Lee Child (the brain behind be-still-my-heart Jack Reacher) said: “like vintage Elmore Leonard crossed with classic Dennis Lehane.” I have to admit that I started reading with a good dose of scepticism, because who can live up to that? But it seems that maybe Child was right. I’m still thinking on it.

And the new Joe Pike novel is out. If you put me in a room with Joe Pike and Jack Reacher, I’d call that an embarrassment of riches.

an idea out of the blue

First: some great entries on the rewrite this! contest. Keep ’em coming. I’ll close the comments tomorrow afternoon, and then I may ask the Mathematician to pick the winner. Or maybe the Girlchild. Certainly my mind is not in proper working order for such an important decision.

Okay so, when I’m sick I tend to be more obsessive than normal. Maybe that’s true of everybody, I don’t know, but it seems unlikely that there are many people in the world who, when they have a fever, find themselves utterly wrapped up in the idea of, say, Cherry Garcia ice cream. So wrapped up that it’s the primary thing on the mind, in the dreams, everywhere.

I know that doesn’t sound very odd. Lots of people adore Cherry Garcia. What could be more natural? Those huge chunks of cherry, the way the the dark chocolate sets the sweetness of the fruit off… a perfect ice cream.

Where was I.

Okay, so here’s the really weird thing. Yesterday I ran across a food weblog (and yes, there are tons of those) and a post on that weblog from last year discussing a European sweet swap. I read that entry about six times. It seems these clever Europeans got together and set this up. You put together a box of delicacies. The one the blogger got was from somebody in Sweden, and had two kinds of homemade cookies (each described lovingly, with photos), and lots of local chocolate and candy.

Can you see this? Homemade cookies from Sweden. In the mail. With chocolate on the side.

Immediately I started looking. Someplace there must be somebody arranging this kind of swap on a larger scale. An International Sweet Swap. Once a month, as I imagined it, you send out a box of stuff, and you get one back. From Japan, from Scotland, from Hungary, France, Portugal, India. This sounds to me like an excellent idea. The reason the internet was invented was to introduce me to more ways to ingest interesting combinations of carbohydrates and fats, after all.

And then the reality: no such website, weblog, notice board. No place on the planet (as far as various search engines could tell me) were such things being planned.

You’d think it would end there, but no. In my fevered mind, an idea: I could start the thing going. The Internationsl Sweet Swap. All I would need is another weblog installation, easy peasy. Yes! Yes! Soon all your cookies are belong to me.

Luckily the Mathematician is familiar with my fevered preoccupation mode. His first question: so, these are all strangers, right? Sending you food through the mail? Um, have you thought about… food poisoning? A box of cookies in transit for a week, butter and sugar and nuts, excess heat… you do remember that last time you had food poisoning.

To which I said: you merciless pooper on parties. Fine. No International Sweet Swap, but let’s have a talk about Cherry Garcia.

There is (sometimes) a method in my madness.

repeating myself: on mentoring

Given the fact that I’ve had four emails in a month touching on this topic, I’m going to pull this q/a from the FAQ page.

Q: I have been working on a novel for quite a while now and I would so much appreciate input. Could you possibly find time…?

I get mail now and then from readers who are working very hard on their own stories. These are people who are struggling with the very issues and questions and doubts I faced some years ago, and that I still face, in a different way, today. I understand very well what they are experiencing but the help I can offer is limited.

It is a great responsibility to read the work of aspiring authors, and it is also a delicate, involved, and time consuming one. When I have a piece of work in front of me, I hold a person’s hopes and dreams in my hands. The wrong word or approach could crush those aspirations.

This is true no matter what the relationship. I exchange work with my best friend, and we both step carefully even though we give each other honest criticism. Over tea I can say to her “This just doesn’t work for me,” or “The transition here falls short” and she will not be crushed, because she knows that I respect her and her work. She can say to me “You just can’t use that name, it evokes too many associations to X” or “You’ve used this image before” or “huh?” and I’ll just nod, because she’s right and I know she is.

But an author who is just starting out may need commentary on many levels. From how to open a story to where to end a paragraph, from word choice to dialog, from story to character. When I teach introduction to creative writing I don’t let my students write a whole story to start with, simply because they will give me ten pages that require so much commentary it would take me longer to comment than it did for them to write it.

I once had a graduate student in creative writing who was very talented. She was writing her master’s thesis — a collection of short stories — under my direction. She had a whole file of stories she said were “junk”, but I asked to see them anyway. She believed that they were junk because a previous teacher had handed them back to her with the words “not worth the effort” written on them. But in that pile of rejected stories (about seven of them) I found four that had wonderful promise. Strong characters in interesting conflicts, but the rest of the story was in poor shape and needed extensive work. Over a summer I worked with her on those four stories. Each went through ten or even fifteen revisions, and she worked them into something wonderful. But it took tremendous effort.

The moral of that story is that the wrong reader can do a great deal of damage; the right reader is just the beginning of a long writing process.

I am sure that some or even many of the people who ask me to read their work are talented. They may need direction and help, and need it very sincerely. If I am not the person to provide it, what other choices do they have?

My strongest suggestion is to make connections to other writers around you. Community colleges often have classes in creative writing. Even if a new writer feels they are beyond the “introduction” stage, this can be a great way to make contact to others with the same interests and concerns. I found my first writing group (an excellent one) through a creative writing class. The other real advantage of taking such a course is this: it teaches you to accept constructive criticism gracefully, something that is often very hard for beginning writers, but absolutely necessary.

If for whatever reason it isn’t possible to take a course, then there are very good writing communities on-line. I highly recommend the authors’ forum at CompuServe, which includes sections where people submit and critique each other’s work, according to genre. CompuServe was very helpful to me when I was in the early stages of writing Into the Wilderness. Finally, I am always happy to suggest two books which were (and still are) helpful to me. The first one because it looks at the nuts-and bolts of putting together fiction with great insight, wonderful examples, and most of all, common sense; the second one because it is hopeful and wise and funny.

Jane Burroway. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. 5th edition July 1999. Addison-Wesley Pub Co. ISBN: 0321026896

Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird. October 1995. Anchor Books/Doubleday. ISBN: 0385480016

Writing is a demanding business, but a rewarding one. It’s hard for everybody; take comfort in that. And then get down to work.